Leadership and the Ground Zero Mosque

Posted 08.16.2010

Obama-ramadan-dinner It looks like an emerging campaign issue this Fall will be President Obama’s position on building a mosque close to Ground Zero. At a Ramadan dinner at the White House last week, Obama said that Muslims have the right to build a worship and community center in lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. While he made the distinction the next day between the right to build and the wisdom of building on that site, here is the main point that Obama made at the dinner:

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the founders must endure.”

Obama’s remarks echoed those of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg at a public event following a city board’s approval of building the center.  Speaking of the first responders on 9/11, Bloomberg said:

“In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’… We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

Bloomberg1 At the risk of igniting a debate among readers on the efficacy of building the Islamic center a few blocks from Ground Zero, I would argue that both Obama and Bloomberg have shown principled leadership on the issue. For a full discussion of the historical grounding of their positions, I encourage you to read this column by Simon Schama in the Financial Times and this one by former George W. Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson in the Washington Post.

For now, I would suggest that there are at least three behaviors that Obama and Bloomberg have both demonstrated that would well serve leaders who are navigating their way through a controversy and trying to decide what to do:

Consider the History:  As Schama details in his column, Bloomberg's and Obama's positions are informed by a series of events in U.S. history. When determining what to do in a difficult situation, leaders should consider the historical precedents in their institution or organization.

Consider the Principles:  In his column, Gerson makes this point, "A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves — including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights."  Whether they’re stated or not, most organizations have operating principles.  Considering and referencing the core principles of an organization can help leaders make an informed decision about how to proceed.

Consider the Long Term:  This consideration poses the long term interests of the organization and its principles against short term concerns based on what the majority deems popular. Leadership can be lonely. Never more so than when most people disagree with the stand you’re taking. In times like that, it helps to consider the impact of your decision not over the next month or year, but the next five years, 20 years or even a hundred years.

As I wrote earlier, my intent in this post is not to hash out the pros and cons of the mosque in lower Manhattan. My goal is to stimulate some thinking and conversation about what can be learned about leadership through examining the situation. 

What’s your take so far? Who’s exhibiting sound leadership in this case? Why do you think so? Who’s not? Why do you think so? What can we learn about leadership from observing either side of the ledger?