Meekness, not weakness, is leadership key
Ethics is not simply a matter of doing the right thing, but about becoming the right sort of person. It’s about building the kind of character and virtue that makes one ethically strong. A problem with strong personalities, however, is that they tend to intimidate others.
There are special virtues that prevent this. One is meekness. It has nothing to do with weakness. Rather, meekness is strength under control. It is power that builds up rather than tears down. It is closely connected to humility, which involves the ability to recognize what is of God in others, whether they be subordinates or superiors, friends or foes.
One of the best examples of humble leadership in recent American history is Judge William Clark. Ronald Reagan’s most influential advisor, Clark ran the gubernatorial campaign that launched Reagan’s political career. He went on to serve under President Reagan as Deputy Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of the Interior.
Many who rise to the top are driven by ambition. In contrast, Bill Clark wanted to be nothing more than a rancher, family man and good Catholic. Too poor to finish either college or law school, he nevertheless qualified to take the bar exam. After 10 years running a thriving law practice, Clark received a phone call that changed his life. It was Ronald Reagan asking him for help with his campaign for governor of California. Before he knew it, he found himself Governor Reagan’s chief of staff.
Humility and meekness can be seen in how a person deals with superiors. The issues facing Governor Reagan were complex and opinions, even among staff members, were diverse. Clark developed a memo system to give the governor a summary of each issue with all pros, cons and a final recommendation, all in four paragraphs, on one page. In this, Clark fairly presented the governor with all sides of the story, never “cooking” the facts to prejudice the governor’s decision in favor of Bill’s own opinion. Many of his staff tried to maneuver around, change, or manipulate the governor. Not Bill. It was at this time that he coined the famous phrase “let Reagan be Reagan.” When he left Sacramento, Reagan appointed him superior court judge, then promoted him all the way to the state Supreme Court. It seemed that Reagan kept advancing Clark’s career, in part, because Clark was the one person who did not use the governor to advance himself.
Humility and meekness can also be seen in how people treat subordinates. People in power often are oblivious to the humble people that serve them. Bill Clark knew not only the names of every janitor and maid in the White House and State Department, but he knew their spouses’ and kids’ names, since he was always chatting with them and praying for them. When the president insisted that he accept a limo and chauffeur, he befriended his African-American driver, arranging for him to meet the president. Human dignity is a result of being made in the image and likeness of God. Clark’s humility caused him to recognize and acknowledge that dignity in everyone, especially those “on the periphery,” elevating and ennobling people as he did so.
Clark’s humility and meekness also enabled him to respect the human dignity of adversaries. After Reagan’s landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, Clark convinced Reagan that they needed to learn all they could about foreign affairs from the former president. So Bill reached out. The Carters, still smarting from their humiliating defeat, were reluctant to talk. But when Bill told the former president just how much he and President Reagan valued his wisdom and advice, the ice broke. Before long, Clark and Carter were hunting together and Carter was phoning the Democratic congressional leadership to tell them that Bill Clark was a true gentleman and ought to be treated right.
No one had greater impact on Ronald Reagan’s pro-life stance, his partnership with Pope John Paul II, and the winning of the Cold War than Bill Clark. And yet most Americans don’t remember his name. Why? Because Clark never sought the limelight. He didn’t need it. Secure in his own dignity as a son of God, he spent his life recognizing that dignity in others.
MARCELLINO D’AMBROSIO, aka “Dr. Italy,” writes from Texas. Connect with him at dritaly.com or on social media @DrItaly. For more info on William Clark, see Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner’s bestseller, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius, 2007)