Listening, Learning, Leading

January 16, 2017

In October, I was given the remarkable opportunity to tour the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Tomorrow evening, the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, and I will be together during an evening of Yale- and Smithsonian-sponsored gatherings at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The overarching focus at Davos this year is “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” and I believe Yale has a special voice to contribute to this discussion. What better way to cultivate these attributes than through a liberal arts education? From the sciences, technology, and engineering, we acquire the tools to understand our world and shape the future. The social scientific disciplines enable us to engage in the great debates of our era. And through the arts and humanities, we discover what is meaningful and who we are as individuals, communities, and societies.

So, during this WEF week, we are shining the spotlight on one facet of the liberal arts at Yale and have enlisted the help of some of our alumni and faculty to bring to life the role of the humanities in developing leadership skills. Their insights will appear on the Yale Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram channels throughout the week. As Maya Lin, who graduated from Yale College in 1981 and the School of Architecture in 1986, wrote for one of the profiles, “The humanities help us … see threads of commonality between us.”

Has there been any more devoted champion of this commonality than the man whose legacy we celebrate today? And is there any more exemplary leader among the greats of our country’s past? Martin Luther King, Jr., was not elected to office. He didn’t inherit his power. And yet he led one of the greatest movements this nation has ever seen. He did so by embodying responsive and responsible leadership. He listened to others; he learned from them; he connected with them.

Among the collection of Dr. King-related materials in the Smithsonian’s newest museum, there is a stirring photograph in which he turns from the seat of his open car to clasp the hands of several onlookers. Today, I pause to reflect on all that is conveyed by that simple moment of connection—and to remember the man who reminded us of our common humanity.