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by Robert Coles

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-50108-8
Publisher: Random House

A lively examination of the idea of moral leadership as encountered in public, private, and literary example.

In an effort to answer the questions of what a moral leader is and what makes him such, Pulitzer-winning writer and ethics professor Coles (The Secular Mind, 1999) returns to persons and places he has examined in previous work. The examples of Robert Kennedy, Dorothy Day, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are considered, but with particular (and almost exclusive) emphasis on the language each used to sort through ethical or political dilemmas—and on the relationship between those words and subsequent actions. The author makes his points obliquely, for the most part, allowing the historical issues that his subjects faced (busing in Boston, voter registration in the Mississippi Delta, fascism and terror in Nazi Germany, etc.) to prod the reader toward a definition of abstractions like “moral” and “leadership.” In addition, Coles occasionally turns to models from literature, as found in the work of Shakespeare, Emerson, and Conrad. The author takes the concepts he discusses seriously and encourages the reader to do the same, but usually he makes his points without recourse to heavy, hectoring methods; he merely allows concepts and ideas to develop bit by bit through the actions and verbal expression of his subjects. He engages the imagination with greatest energy when his narrative involves specific incidents, such as the struggle of one fourth-grade teacher to lead her students through the minefield that was school desegregation in New Orleans during its earliest years.

A timely, perhaps even timeless, summons to examine the question of moral example and rectitude.