The Sweep of History Summons Our Better Angels

Historian Jon Meacham

The historian Jon Meacham has a new book out entitled the “Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels”.

Fresh off his highly regarded eulogy at Barbara Bush’s funeral, Meacham has released a book that counsels us to take a deep breath—we will get through these turbulent times. We’ve been there before—many times—and we will emerge intact, a stronger and better nation.

It’s a comforting and timely message.

We had the privilege of seeing Meacham two years ago at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida where he charmed us with his humor, facility with history and anecdotes about American presidents. If you have a chance to see him, don’t miss the opportunity.

Meacham’s new book presents a hopeful view and offers examples of how America has overcome divisiveness and hatred in the past.

He says today’s America is freer and more accepting than it has ever been, while acknowledging shortcomings and ongoing struggles over race, gender, equality and political philosophy.

“A tragic element of history,” he writes, “is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction.”


That’s a sobering thought and a reminder that we must be vigilant and guard the progress that’s been made.

Recalling Lincoln, Meacham implores us to summon our “better angels” believing that the soul of America is kind and caring, not mean and callous. His advice: enter the arena, resist tribalism, respect facts, deploy reason, find balance and be mindful of history.

So while Meacham’s book is aimed at our nation, his advice can also be deployed at the local level, where I believe the action really happens.

When communities are divided, good people often avoid the arena because it feels unsafe. After all, who wants to swim in a toxic pool?

As a result, when communities are at odds, we often see tribes or factions arise. Of course, each faction has their own set of “facts” which often doesn’t allow for reason or compromise to take hold.

In those instances, it is hard to find balance and often there is an attempt to redraw history and bend the narrative to fit a particular viewpoint.

At we observe two very different communities, with different styles and sensibilities.

But there are commonalities as well.

Both cities have divisions, political and social. Both are wrestling with change and what they aspire to be. Both are attractive to people with ideas for the future, which is a good thing. You should worry when nobody has ideas or aspirations.

But like a nation, a community’s health and sustainability improves when there is a sense of common purpose; a unity of vision and identity.

These are the times when we need our better angels to win out over our other more aggressive instincts.

The civic square (arena) should be made safer for productive debate and conversation, tribes should strive to find common ground and agree that facts matter.

Is that possible?

Yes, it is.

But it takes a concerted effort. Someone—a leader—has to say that the current state is unacceptable and remind us that we can do better.

As Lincoln reminds us…“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”



In Praise of Leadership Florida


Ten years ago, I spent the better part of a year attending Leadership Florida (LF), a statewide program designed to give participants an in-depth view of the state’s challenges and opportunities.

I know the term “life changing” has become trite and overused, but my experience in the class program left a lasting and deep impression on me. I’m not alone in that assessment and over the 34 year history of the program—considered one of the finest state leadership programs in the nation—about 1,500 men and women have come away with similar feelings.

The experience instilled in me a love of Florida and a deeper appreciation for its diversity and history. I have lived here for nearly 30 years now, a decade longer than my native New York, and so Florida has become home even though I will always feel an allegiance and a passion for the Empire State.

But my love affair was with Delray Beach. Sure, I liked Florida, but I didn’t have a love for the state until I experienced Leadership Florida. In LF, I found a community of leaders committed to the betterment of their cities, state and nation. They hail from business, the non-profit world, education and government but the common ground among this diverse group is a commitment to making a difference. We are Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, moderates and liberals and since the program is 34 years old there is a wide age range involved. In fact, my son Ben just graduated from College Leadership Florida and I have friends who have been involved in the executive program (for CEOs), Connect (for young professionals) and a new program for educators (hoping my daughter attends). You can say that LF covers a lot of ground.

Every year, LF holds an annual meeting featuring world class speakers on a variety of topics. This year the event was in Orlando which led to a lot of discussion on the mass shooting and what can be done to make our state safer.

The speakers also talked about poverty in Florida (1 in 6 live below the poverty line), the shrinking middle class and what it means for America and of course leadership.

Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, gave an engaging speech on this moment in history—Trump vs. Clinton—reminding everyone that while this year is extraordinary, America has had its share of interesting and tumultuous politics throughout its history.

A devout Jeffersonian, Meacham lamented that his guy was being overshadowed by rival Alexander Hamilton thanks to a popular Broadway show featuring rap music intermingled with history.

His idea is to follow “Hamilton” with a show called “TJeff” that would celebrate the life and legacy of our nation’s third president. But humor aside, the graduate of Suwanee College (which he describes as a cross between “Deliverance” and “Downton Abbey”) reminded the audience of how George Washington took pains to solve the bitter feud between the Jefferson camp and the Hamiltonians only to be swiftly rebuffed. Ahh….politics.

Meacham did say that effective leaders throughout history tended to be good writers and tended to know exactly how to reach their followers. Today, that could mean tweeting and getting your message across in 140 characters.

Meacham was fascinating, glib and helped to put this particular moment in our history in perspective.

My other favorite speaker was Ambassador James Joseph who now runs an ethics and leadership center at Duke University. Joseph was ambassador to South Africa when Nelson Mandela came to power. Throughout a long and distinguished career, he has served four U.S. Presidents and has observed leaders at all levels of government.

Joseph seemed to long for a time when “leadership was defined as someone who inspired us and appealed to our better nature.”

Today he sees a tremendous amount of anxiety, alienation and adversity but believes that all of those concerns can be addressed without the bitterness we are seeing today. He says the meanness of public life is the biggest challenge facing leaders and that we must find a way toward national reconciliation.

“A fear of difference is a fear of the future,” he said. “We have to find a way to co-exist.”

He sees four elements to leadership, three traits you need and one you need to avoid:

  • Emotional Intelligence—which he defines as having the ability to be the adult in the room, having compassion and self-control.
  • Moral Intelligence—good leaders know how to think about and talk about values without succumbing to insults or caving into politics.
  • Moral Imperialism—leaders need an ability to resist the urge to divide and develop skills to unite and compromise.
  • Social Intelligence—recognizes the many ways the world is changing.

“I want to see leaders who understand this phrase…’I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you’,” Joseph said. “Effective leadership turns me and you into us.”

Joseph and his wife, an Emmy Award winning documentarian, spoke to the College Leadership Florida graduates at lunch. There he spoke about the importance of hope.

“Effective leaders are not just agents of reconciliation but agents of hope,” he said. “Hope sustains innovation, hope builds profits and the gift of hope is as important a gift as life itself.”

Well said.

I hope you’ll consider applying to Leadership Florida.