If a visitor to Asheville asked a passerby, “Take me to your leader,” the visitor would probably be met with only a blank stare.
Like a person born beautiful or handsome, Asheville sometimes seems to rely on its natural endowments while suffering from a shortage of character and vision. Only a clearly visible and highly respected leader can exercise the kind of moral persuasion that calls forth a community’s potential goodness. Where is Asheville’s leader?
Ordinarily one expects such leadership to arise from the journalistic Fourth Estate (the press), from religious institutions, or from visionary individuals in government or the business community. According to local legend, Asheville was formerly run by a triumvirate: the newspaper editor, the sheriff and the city manager. Since that time, however, civil libertarians and litigious activists have deposed the “bosses” nationwide. But in Asheville, at least, that healthy change has created a continuing leadership vacuum.
In recent years, exemplary individuals across North Carolina have successfully promoted such causes as beautification, racial reconciliation, equitable employment and housing, and good stewardship of land and resources. All these programs have created notable civic pride and a consensus impulse to improve every citizen’s quality of life. Some familiar examples are four-term Charlotte Mayor John Belk; civil rights leaders such as former Durham Mayor Wense Grabarek and the Rev. Vernon Tyson in racially torn Oxford, N.C.; writer John Ehle (who urges social justice and ethnic liberation through his works); and Sam Ragan, the Sandhills newspaperman and poet who reported the good news of human goodness and gently promoted “doing the right thing.” But who is Asheville’s leader?
Throughout history, when government, church, press and business have failed to lead or to produce a leader, it has fallen to unlikely citizens to claim that mantle. Whether in village, city or nation, leadership arises from the human spirit. Consider these anonymous people who stepped up to become heroic leaders: Mohandas Gandhi, an émigré lawyer; Nelson Mandela, the incarcerated icon of South Africa; playwright Václav Havel, who led the democratization of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic; and Lech Walesa of Gdansk, a shipyard worker who freed Poland from its Communist overlords. Apparently, none of these pioneers set out to change the existing political system or to challenge the established power structure, but all of them accepted the ordination of circumstance.
What do these foreign figures have to do with Asheville, N.C.? As with all inspirational models, there must be sufficient distance to allow for idealization and enough proximity for identification. These four from afar can serve as effective guides for Asheville by virtue of their shared struggle to humanize communities and individuals. Who could fail to be thrilled by Mandela’s call for resolving conflict through truth and reconciliation?
Conflict, oppression, violence, and economic and spiritual impoverishment are not “foreign affairs.” At the local level, they translate into things like the disparity between hut and castle, the encroachment of heedless development on the gift of open space, the widening gap between poverty and privilege, the escalation of drug trafficking and overt criminality, and pervasive attitudes of hopelessness, demoralization and cynicism. Who in Asheville will combine sufficient tenderness and toughness to lead us toward a brighter and more realistic future?
Surely most of us know or know about women and men in our community who are working faithfully for equal opportunity and justice in their respective islands of business, government, the judiciary, the law, health care, education and the church; but isolation dilutes their collective impact. Who is there in Asheville who’ll step forward and connect the dots?
Leaders who help foster the wholeness of community must always guard against personal ambition in order to promote public altruism. A humanizing leader must have the courage to say “No” to grandiosity and the generosity to broadcast a heartfelt “Yes” to healthy community.
Speaking at a tribute dinner, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s students observed, “Mr. Emerson always led us to ourselves rather than to himself.”
The Emerson mantle is rich, but assuming it can be a daunting prospect. Who in Asheville will wear that mantle?
[Dr. Robert Phillips, a former professor of clinical psychiatry at Duke University and assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, lives in Asheville with his wife, Susan Sihler.]