Leadership Lessons from John Lewis

July 22, 2020

Trouble. I’ve been in trouble many times and I suspect you have too.

Most times, we don’t go there on purpose. Trouble is something that happens by accident on our way to somewhere else, right?

It takes a lot of courage to walk intentionally into trouble, to stare it in the face and take on the consequences. It takes a real leader.

A leader like John Lewis.

Lewis died last week from pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.

For 55 years, since the famous march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma left him bloody and beaten in the streets, Lewis was a courageous leader in the fight for equality and justice. He served as inspiration and example for generations of activists and was known as the “Conscience of the Congress.”

One of the hallmarks of his leadership was Lewis’ mantra: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis understood that sometimes –maybe often—trouble was the gateway to change.

As a leader, where have you found yourself facing the challenge of walking knowingly into trouble? It happens to all of us. How we meet that challenge is testimony to the strength of our leadership.

In the life of a business, there are times when trouble is likely to rear its head: when something new is about to start, when something is about to end, when the goal is threatened and when things are in transition. In short…when change is happening, trouble can be right around the corner.

Whether the challenges are internal or external, there are some things that you can do as a leader to make navigating troubled waters easier.

  • Know your position. Knowing what you stand for and what you stand against and being able to state that position clearly will keep you centered and focused.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. As a leader, it’s your job to keep your team focused on the goal. That’s the reason for facing the challenge and persevering through it.
  • Face conflict head-on. Identifying the conflict and acknowledging its existence is the essential first step in getting resolution.
  • Always look for common ground. No matter how many different perspectives there are in any given situation, there is something on which people can agree. This common ground is the starting point for successful change.
  • Find allies in the cause. Very few people or organizations get through trouble alone. The bigger the trouble, the greater the need for support in getting to the goal.

Think about the example of John Lewis walking over that bridge in Selma and continuing the fight for civil and human rights until the Black Lives Matter march in Washington this spring. His position was always consistent, the goal always clear. Never one to shy away from a fight or to back down, he was always willing to compromise in the service of what was right.

To honor his legacy, let’s all make a renewed commitment to make some noise when we see something that needs to change, whether in our business or in the wider world. Let’s be willing to take on “good trouble, necessary trouble” to do what needs to be done, especially in the arenas of civil and human rights.

In large and small ways, let’s step into the void left by the passing of this giant of a man.


Go forth and do great things,

Martha & Chris