The Burden of Leadership

I watched the election returns last night with some AIESEC friends and others at my place. Yuengling, that first American beer so new to Georgia, and Maker’s Mark, my personal favorite go-to bourbon, were on hand for the long haul. Of course it wasn’t a long haul; he was declared the winner at 11 PM.

We were watching CNN, continually checking out fivethirtyeight, people’s blogs, etc. When Wolf Blitzer said that CNN was projecting the West Coast was going for Obama and he had won the presidency, I immediately called to mind the opening scene of the pilot episode of Firefly, when Mal is fighting in the Battle of Serenity Valley for the Browncoats. As vicious fighting rages on and the Alliance is decimating his battallion, he grinningly and assuredly yells at his soldiers that soon “our birds will be in the air,” to clear out the valley for them. But then they receive a call saying “They’re not coming. Command says it’s too hot.” And Mal looks, in empty disbelief, as the Alliance ships come down to occupy the valley and the remainder of his battallion, save himself and his second-in-command (a female!) are massacred.

That must be how John McCain and Sarah Palin, in some twisted way, felt as the nation fell to Obamamania.

Or, from the victor’s account, a nation stood up “in hope,” and spoke very loudly about both the direction the country must go in and about their final word on the intensely racist past of this country.

Or from my account, an extremely gifted politician demonstrated shrewd political and organizational forethought and leadership to build up the gigantic machine atop which he was able to sincerely convince a majority across many states that his was the way of engaged peace, turning the wheels of the country to production and prosperity, and he would lead all Americans and not cast any single aspect of his own identity onto his administration.

Fireworks started going off in Atlanta and horns were honking. I received phone calls from friends, and texted to one person who was at Obama’s Grant Park jubilee. McCain’s speech came on, and the man was as respectable, gracious, and honorable as any to have given a speech of victory or conciliation, but the harsh venom and anger of his supporters sprayed upon him one lsat time, even in his singular opportunity to close the wounds of a long campaign. I felt, and continue to feel, genuinely bad for McCain as it is clear he tried to act with the utmost integrity and cooperation, ensuring angry people at his rallies that Obama was not a Muslim and was “a family man,” among being his friend and other things. But the evil of the institution of the political party – his just happens to be Republican, but it’s not about being a Republican, it’s about the Party – found its voice with Sarah Palin, who will chill the hearts and minds of Americans as a fresh new avatar of Dick Cheney.

The Facebook status was last night the soapbox of anti-democratic (notice the little “d”) anger. Beyond even that, it was an art exhibit of sheer ignorance and amazing misinformation, along with the expected racism. One person had “That’s it! I’m moving to Iraq!”, Christians of the right put their pitiful prayers up, like “It’s okay, it is all in God’s plans” on one end, but on the other were such statements as “…God help us.” or to the one who most horribly represents the right-wing of the Institute, “praying for our country… and reminding everyone that ‘God is still God, and Jesus is still coming back!'” Even more confusing, because I don’t expect the aforementioned to utilize any semblance of the reason they had been given at birth, were the statements about Obama’s “socialism” and that “we’re screwed, my paycheck is going to the government.” Since when _wasn’t_ your paycheck going to the government? It was Ben Franklin (a Deist!) who said that there are only two certainties, death and taxes. We have not entered anything even suggesting a “requisition-bracket.” It is easy for me to dismiss the religious swooning, but those arguments just make me scratch my head; it’s really beyond me how such a large part of the American population, especially young people, seriously believe that Obama is a socialist, a Muslim, or both. LBJ and FDR were both far more “socialist,” and not even that, than Obama ever will be. Socialism makes up a significant part of my own political belief system, and I did not vote for Obama mostly because he is not nearly far enough left for me. If that’s the case, how can he be a socialist?

That aside, we looked forward to Obama’s victory speech at midnight. I prepared us all a shot of Maker’s and we watched as he gave his speech. We were all silent, understanding just how important this moment was. Not because of Obamamania, but because America had just executed one of those bloodless revolutions like the one that occurred in 1800, and because we were a part of the election that saw the resurgence of young people as a major political force and that elected the first Black president. That was a pretty cool thing to be a part of.

The real significance of the day didn’t truly hit me until today, however. I was pretty excited to think of the road ahead of the country, and the world as a result. The ecstatic welcome of the whole world to Obama should be enough to prove how important that is. I should note here that I still stand by my vote for Nader. A friend called and asked me last night, as she was reveling in Ohio, if I would have still voted for Nader had this been a serious 2000-style election and I was in a battleground state; I answered yes. The only thing I have is my choice, and if I give it up, I give up everything.

I am looking forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with even the “sinners” at the table, like North Korea and Iran and Venezuela. I am looking forward to a resurgence of feeling good about the country because of our standard of living, which we should be thankful. I am looking forward to the way Obama will probably bring about a more direct form of democracy through his personal interest and enthusiasm in things like social networks and open source software. Most of all I am looking forward to his announcement of a project to make the nation energy independent in ten years, our very own modern-day Apollo project, which will also form the powerful new engine for the economy which those neocons have failed to understand.

Which reminds me, ever noticed how the Great Depression was preceded by a decade of Republican rule in the executive branch and legislative branch, and this current crisis has been preceded by Republican rule in the legislature since 1994, save the last two years, and a Republican in the White House since 2001?

I did a lot of reading up over the last couple of weeks on Obama’s victory machine and how it occurred, and I learned that it came from Dean‘s strategy in 2004, which he has now translated to the DNC as his “fifty-state strategy.” I began to take some inspiration from this, noting how Dean insisted that Democrats engage all Americans in all States, not just their largely outdated vanguard of labor unions, immigrants and other minorities, “big-city” liberals and working-class whites. Obama has perfected that vision, engaging with all Americans on their own terms as the direction of this country has been washed out by Hurricane Bush. It’s much like lessons of leadership I’ve learned on my own journey in AIESEC – if you are not open and don’t let people come to terms with their own decisions, then the integrity of your organization is doomed to fail. Forcing beliefs and decisions down people’s throats is a ticket to retribution – or as we saw this July, revolution.

Which leads me to finally discuss much of my feelings about my term at Local Committee President of AIESEC at Georgia Tech.

Everyone tells you that being LCP is the best year of your life – and indeed, they are right. It is the coolest job in AIESEC. You are truly a leader, no one to catch you, no one to tell you what to do. You have to manage a business and make sure it is sustainable, and grows, and produces your product in high volume – quality AIESEC Experiences.

They’re right!

But I came into this role amist a dark and worsening cloud over AIESEC US. When elected, LC motivation was approaching an all-time low from when I was a part of restarting it. Students had been stripped of the last “real” exercise of power we had, producing traineeships, against our will. The entire MoTxCoKs region released a letter of grievances to the nation directed at the national staff – none of them were answered. I woke up in St. Louis on January 1 knowing that if AIESEC US was not saved in this year, it would never be saved.

It was not only the daunting national situation, but also my semester of unprecedented academic difficulty, which beat me hard. My high hopes for making my team an extremely tight unit, vanguard for AIESEC GT, were eventually put down by both my own inability to motivate people and also my inability to abandon my classes to F’s (although I almost failed two classes that semester). This was de-motivation number one. That followed up with things I was learning that were happening to AIESEC US – namely that we were losing our full member status, and my knowledge that the national staff was not too interested in doing anything about it.

On the local front meanwhile, I had seriously alienated the team that left me the office, the EB of 2007 – and this was in the end all my fault. I wanted to wipe away the demotivation of the fall, but I handled it too poorly and it cost me dearly, and in turn it cost the LC dearly. To those of you who came before us: I apologize. I was wrong to not seek your counsel more deliberately, and to not consider what words you did offer more seriously.

I went to EUROXPROS in St. Petersburg, Russia, for Spring Break, knowing that in the last days of that meeting the national staff would be meeting in the US to determine what to do about our membership status in the global network. This weighed so heavily on me, and my conversations with Naoufel there were both a buoy to my sanity and a confirmation to my fears. One day during the conference when we worked with the Balanced ScoreCard, I realized fully how much AIESEC US was not AIESEC at a fundamental level (to use the words of the Senator from Illinois). I became visibly upset – I kind of hyperventilated and kept shaking my head. People asked me if I was alright; I was not. My mind was breaking, as was my heart, in the middle of Russia by the sea.

I managed to have a very useful and important conversation with some pertinent people on the AI team there about the situation, and their counsel was seriously important to the events that followed. It was, essentially, necessary that I went there to Russia, even if I did not go to meet them in the first place.

A national Leadership Team meeting took place in NYC in late April, where Missy was not present. I could guess why; no one else knew except two national staffers. Besides being a predictably unproductive meeting, they claimed that the memership criteria did not require us to do anything more than write down what we already do. My own independent investigation and counsel with Missy had already made me know that those were untrue statements.

When Missy quit as MCP, I took open action, an action of opening: I made the uneducated LCPs of AIESEC US aware of the freely-available and binding literature on the member country situation, such that everyone could read for themselves the truth. It did require some coordinating however, such that I had to email AI to request one document, but the document was freely available to anyone who asked for it. I sent it out on a Friday to prevent quick retaliation by the Thought Police.

I got a call from the person who would later be installed as Missy’s replacement, without any democratic process. He said that what I had done was seriously damaging, and if I did anything like it again, “we cannot work together.” I’d heard that one before. I simply responded “I understand.” I was in the car on the way from Gadsden to Atlanta to leave for Canada’s national conference that night when I got this call. I had made my decision about my role in AIESEC US.

As if by fate, the same person I talked to in Russia was the chair of the conference. I managed to get some time with him, and there the foundations were laid for what I had to do, to be a responsible leader, someone who would stand up and give a damn about AIESEC in the US. It was all up to me, but the first keys had been handed to me.

The national organization in turmoil and anger already from Missy’s departure and her unwarranted replacement, I set about using the global network I had built over my nearly three-year tenure in AIESEC. They proved totally necessary in building what eventually became the plan: to produce a letter written by and signed by as many LCPs as possible, to be placed on so as to not only be publicly visible, but also to be required to be used as “evidence” by the Global Plenary of AIESEC. I had to keep identities secret when I talked to LCPs to protect people, but we managed to organize it right under the natstaff’s nose.

The major error came at this point, however: there were a couple of LCs, namely Michigan and Baruch, which we feared may alert the national staff if we invited them to talk about the letter. That would be unacceptable; most LCPs were not knowledgeable enough about the bad reality of AIESEC US as I was (from a tell-all by a former natstaffer) to firmly stand by their signature in the face of natstaff retaliation before the letter was released. Thus, the very difficult decision had to be made by those people who were responsible for those regions (the letter writing and organization had one leader per region involved). In the end, they were not approached. There were a few other LCs which we tried to approach but we did not manage to have a conversation with before July 4; this proved to be the dividing line in the days afterwards, especially in Madison.

I learned my lesson about openness from that – if people do not take ownership over something, no matter how much of a “fellow traveler” they are, if they are not a part of the process that creates a decision or product, then invariably they will not be as “on-board” as those who did create it, and will probably even wind up standing in opposition to it. It is the nature of organization and allegiance and is unbeatable. One of the people we did not reach, whom most say would have been for the letter, wound up being one of its most vocal opponents.

Then came July 4; then came the dissolution of the LC, then came the story we all know. Then came August 5, then came the resignation of the national staff, then came the night we said “we are the most powerful people on earth.” Sure it was just euphoria, sure it was – but we did not expect that one month and one day after the letter was released this clean sweep would occur. We didn’t want it to happen that way, mind you, but it did, and here we are.

And while I was galavanting with national and global figures, fighting the fight which I had to to preserve AIESEC US and by association my own LC, there nonetheless sat my beloved family in Atlanta, not cared for as it should have been. I was like the senator who spent all his time in Washington. I did not care for my constituents, I did not care for my family.

I think that during my tenure, I have been too dogmatic about AIESEC. I have done no small amount of philosophizing around our product and our identity, the nature of AIESEC as a student organization, and the like. It has led me to identify those things which make for a great AIESEC Experience. It was utterly invaluable in the revolution. But the students of Georgia Tech are not all like that, and by failing to accomodate that, I did not live up to my own expectations in terms of the quality of results I wanted, and I did not live up to the expectations of the office of Local Committee President in terms of the dynamic of the LC. I became too harsh sometimes to my EB, and that only drove them away, and disrepair continued.

I have a hard time connecting with people who haven’t “gotten” AIESEC yet. I want so badly for the people who come in as newies to have their minds blown like I and the veterans of the LC have, to realize how magnificent it is that such an organization really does exist and we are a part of it, and more recently how beautiful it feels to give so much to save it, and finally, finally see the day come where the road is lit again by the light of openness. I’m just not that kind of guy. Luckily my successor is that kind of gal.

We are called “Local” Committee President for a reason. It is my belief that I did not live up to my own expectations, nor that of my team, nor that of my LC, nor that of my predecessors, and probably not that of my colleagues here or around the world, in that local capacity. AIESEC happens on a local level, and no matter how much I did on the national level, I can’t change that I failed to be an effective leader where it matters most to our product.

That being said, the events of July 4 and Madison in early August, as well as finally National Presidents Meeting in Chicago, were transforming to my life. The night of August 5 confirmed in my heart what my life-quest must be: to wage openness on the world. I must swing the sword of truth to destroy corruption and the closed nature of parts of our society and allow facts to kill lies. It is this quest to which I am dedicating my entire life. How I will do it, I’m not entirely sure yet, but I will say one possible path is being inspired by George Soros (former honorary Chairman of the Board of AIESEC US!) and his Open Society Institute.

Something more I have been thinking about from that time, something which has plagued me since I entered university, is that my skills shine there, on the national and global stage. That’s where I have achieved the most, and it is explicitly through my talents and practice. My talent for that sort of thing, I guess we’ll call it “statesmanship,” was first prominently exhibited when I was whisked from being a cynical and angry young liberal at what I percieved as a corrupt and overly religious Alabama YMCA Youth in Government summit in 2004, to being declared as one of the 20 delegates (out of about 400) from Alabama to the 2004 Youth Conference on National Affairs – and I didn’t even know such a damn thing existed. My experience there was also pretty important. And though my skills were in places like that, as well as writing and music in high school, I chose to go into electrical engineering specifically because I didn’t have a knack for it and it would be challenging. In my research on how Obama’s political machine has brought him to such a victory, I was reading Bill Clinton’s Wikipedia entry. This passage spoke directly to me, my feelings, my experience, and my future:

In Hot Springs, Clinton attended St. John’s Catholic Elementary School, Ramble Elementary School, and Hot Springs High School – where he was an active student leader, avid reader, and musician.[citation needed] He was in the chorus and played the tenor saxophone, winning first chair in the state band’s saxophone section. He briefly considered dedicating his life to music, but as he noted in his autobiography My Life:

(…) Sometime in my sixteenth year I decided I wanted to be in public life as an elected official. I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. I was interested in medicine and thought I could be a fine doctor, but I knew I would never be Michael DeBakey. But I knew I could be great in public service.[13]

And that is where I find myself. I love music and was considering how I could do it for serious money in college, but I knew I would never be Chuck Leavell. Now I am getting my ass kicked by, but seriously taking an interest in, electrical engineering but I will never be anything like Nikola Tesla. But I can be a great leader of my community, and we all know that geographical lines don’t mean anything any more with communities. That is where my talents lie, and I have to come to terms with that. I have to stop denying it. But I cannot sell out either; I must combine my talents with my quest and become a Hero.

Separation, Initiation, and Return.

After sitting down and writing this, I realize that is why I am really so interested in Obama now. I’m not an Obama-maniac, mind you; I always question everything and I won’t stop, and so I have to be skeptical of the pageant of his campaign promises. Nevertheless, here is a man who came from a world totally unlike the one he gained the key to Tuesday night. Obama is what the Shepherd called “a Believer:”

SHEPHERD BOOK: Only one thing is gonna walk you through this, Mal. Belief.

MAL: Sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’ t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.

BOOK: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?

It’s time for me to believe too. Not in Obama. In my talents and in my quest.


I never got culture shock in Spain. I wondered if that meant I was special or if it only existed for the weak of heart.

Reverse culture shock, however, is a bitch.

I arrived back in the US on the evening of July 1, after spending the last hour of 18 hours of travel in a holding pattern over bad Atlanta skies. Finally I made it safely on the ground and my old roommate Eric and I went to get our promised (rather, his promised) Steak and Shake. It was delicious. I had many meetings with Georgia Tech advisors and officers the next day and it significantly affected my actions and plans for the fall – I had looked forward to applying for a CEED for AIESEC Ecuador, but that won’t be compatible with what I must do – if anyone can help me get an electrical or computer engineering job in a Spanish speaking country that last at least 14 weeks and starts no earlier than September 5, let me know.

Dave and I returned to the City of Gadrock the morning of the 3rd, stopping for an obligatory and delectable Pop’s Charburgers milkshake on the way. We got many piled up in the cars to go down to the original Jefferson’s in Jacksonville, AL only to find that our once-dank hideout was now remodeled in the style of, as Dave calls them, “shitty nice Jefferson’s.” The wings of course were as delicious as ever, but it forever buried the need to go to Jville ever again for us. The next morning I went up to the lake to celebrate our Independence Day, and had an excellent time with some friends singing karaoke and trying to play “Piano Man.” I slept at J.D.’s house there that night, since the next morning I got up at 5 in the morning and booked it to Black Mountain, North Carolina for the 40th Annual YMCA Youth in Government Conference On National Affairs reunion.

I expected a great time, and really, a great time was had. There weren’t as many people as were expected, but it was still a very solid and mostly young group. As it turned out, I only knew three people who were there, but I was excited to meet new folks. Apart from socializing and enjoying Asheville, Black Mountain, and Room 230 at the Comfort Inn, we hiked the mountain and went to a barbecue festival.

Unfortunately for me, I was way too fresh off the plane and five months of speaking Spanish. I began to notice by the second day that I was unusually quiet, and by the end of that day I found that I was having a very hard time participating in any of the conversations. Chalking it up to just a bad day, I decided things would be better the next day, Saturday. This was not the case, and as I continued to be so unlike myself and not understanding why, I got really stressed and it escalated so much by the end of Saturday that I had to stand outside and breathe fresh air for a good bit of the time. I determined later through some conversations and reflection that it was a symptom of reverse culture shock, fundamentally based in the fact that when you are in another country and especially surrounded by another language, even if your conversations are about YouTube videos it is in a learning paradigm. Everything in Spain was a learning experience, not just shooting the shit on a Friday night like most comfortable conversations in the US. Since I was no longer in the learning paradigm, I was unable to recognize and connect and find where I fit in. I think I’m better now, and if I had gone to the reunion maybe two weeks after getting back then things would have been much cooler for me – although I’m really glad for the people I met and for the things I did, and I look forward to future reunions when everyone can meet who I really am.

Just as I was leaving Asheville and watching the last person fade out of view, with very strange and powerful pangs flowing through my heart and stomach, I said this aloud:

My life right now is about leaving people.

The flipside, I decided a minute later, is that leaving people is always only half of the story for a nomad. I’m moving a whole lot right now, and it is exhausting, and it will continue to be exhausting. But I’m going to Turkey at the end of July, and in September I will (if all goes well) be working in a Latin American country for the fall. In those times, my life will be about meeting people.