A message to Texas’ young leaders

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

No one is forcing you to learn to govern; no one is forcing you to be a leader. When you raise your hand and say that you will serve, you have created a moral obligation. Your conduct can affect the earnings, health, education, defense, freedom and happiness of the people you lead.

You do not have a right to violate that moral obligation by any means: laziness, self-interest, stupidity or, most importantly, dishonesty. And in the conduct of your activities, your personal integrity and honor depend on three obligations.

First, follow science and reason in your deliberations; they underpin our common understanding of the world in which we live. Your education matters, enabling you to understand science and follow reason. You owe Texas an understanding of the physical and social science behind the problems that affect your constituents. 

Second, focus on the betterment of Texas rather than on your own political or personal futures and fortunes. Partisanship is a reality before your election or selection, but once elected, you represent all the people, and your moral obligation is to govern in a balanced way.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the destructiveness of tribalism in both politics and religion. When you govern and legislate, you are working for one people and one God — not a tribe, a party or religion. The truth, if seen from only one perspective, can become a partial and essentially false representation, and half-truths, when not corrected, are lies.

This emerges in a classic line from the Cadet Prayer at West Point: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.” Whether you are religious or not, such a quote reflects the moral obligation of government leaders to serve the people honestly. Anyone who claims that a cylinder is either a rectangle or a circle would not be being truthful, especially if such a claim is self-serving, but a cylinder looks like a circle or a rectangle when viewed from only one direction. To govern in that way is to create an agenda that is a lie unto itself. Don’t be partisan.

It has never been more difficult in the United States to be in touch with the truth. The past few years have brought us terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and as someone who has developed leaders for more than 30 years, I now seriously question whether the majority of our political leaders are good role models for the youth of Texas or America.

For the time being, I would suggest that you find your heroes closer to home — in your parents and grandparents, in community leaders who work hard in otherwise thankless jobs, in police and first responders who put their lives on the line every day. Those great people are the best role models you can have today.

So I’m asking you to follow through on your third obligation — the obligation not just to be honest in political matters, but to demand the same of others. You have the obligation to know when you’re being lied to and to refuse to tolerate it. Refuse to accept it. Refuse to let it become normal.

Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Tom Kolditz

Founding director, Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders, Rice University