After watching the first of the presidential debates last Friday night, I can’t help but wish we had a better selection of candidates. While John McCain and Barack Obama dodge questions and perfect the art of political gamesmanship, we average Americans fear for our very financial futures.

Watching the debate reminded me of another set of American men. One was black and one was white, and we all know their names: George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. What each man did in his respective era was truly remarkable. Freedom was their ultimate goal and they successfully inspired and led – in every meaning of the word – their fellow Americans into a promising new future.

Like the concept of love, leadership is best understood with examples, rather than words. How great it would be to have presidents and presidential candidates who didn’t just talk about leading but actually led – or had a history of leading others – in a dignified and substantial manner.

Washington had a vision. He aimed to oust Great Britain so America could be free to govern itself. After forming this vision, Washington worked hard, suffered, and always kept focused on seeing his vision through to fruition. That’s what a leader does. He or she first has a vision of a better tomorrow and then does his or her best to make that dream reality.

King was a similarly inspiring leader. He had a vision of racial equality where blacks and whites were equal in the sight of the law and each other. Though he was killed because of his vision – without seeing his vision realized – his leadership spurred thousands, if not millions, of people toward an America where civil rights is reality.

These two American men were vastly different, though similar in one regard: they both led by example. They had visions of a better future, got dirty making their visions real, and their focused drive convinced others to join the fight.

But leadership-by-example is a painful journey. Washington slept in uncomfortable tents alongside his men. King spent countless nights in run-down motels eating potluck meals in cramped church basements. Both marched through rain and under the hot sun. Both battled countrymen who taunted them (Washington the English sympathizers, and King the racists). To their followers, however, their suffering showed an unwavering dedication to the cause. Without their ongoing example, the followers would have stopped following and the dreams of freedom would have died.

A leader who doesn’t lead by example but barks orders in an aloof or dictatorial “supervisory” capacity, is a leader whose future is bleak. Followers want leaders who suffer alongside them, guiding them through the suffering. But if the leader thinks him or herself somehow above the fray, that leader will soon be found to be a fraud and replaced by someone who isn’t afraid to lead by example, down in the trenches.

There are many followers, but few leaders. Why? Because there are few people who can think outside their current reality and imagine a better tomorrow. When someone can actually imagine a grand vision, it is very rare that same person has the stamina to follow the vision to its end, especially if the vision winds its way through difficult obstacles.

Washington and King knew their visions would cause them pain, possibly death, but they chose to follow their dreams despite the suffering. That’s what made them such great leaders, still worthy of our praise. Anyone can have a vision and get people on board. It takes a true leader to keep people on board months or years into the fight. George W. Bush is an excellent example of a leader who failed to keep the people focused on a uniting goal (the War on Terror), instead choosing to fight a war his father lost (defeating Saddam Hussein).

Do you see Obama or McCain leading by example like a Washington or King? If not, join the club. If you can, then vote for whichever inspires you. I just wish I felt the same.

John Balentine, of Windham, is the former editor of the Lakes Region Weekly.

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