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Franklin’s book on moral leadership explores urgent public need

Robert Franklin, Emory's James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, has published his latest book, "Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination."

Robert Franklin is used to answering questions about being a professor in moral leadership. Among the reactions that most amuse him is the observation, “Moral leadership, is that a thing?”

Franklin, who is in fact the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, relishes the chance to explain that not only is moral leadership indeed a thing, but “it might actually be a welcome response to an urgent public and private need.” 

Franklin’s sense of that need has been affirmed by his experiences as a leader (he also is president emeritus of Morehouse College), by his students and by the COVID-19 pandemic. His latest book, “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination,” is particularly prescient, given the current moment.

As Franklin defines it, moral leadership is not solely focused on personal goodness or religious piety, although those qualities may be present, but on leadership for the common good that invites others to join in. 

“Throughout our history, when human communities have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, women and men with integrity, courage and imagination have emerged to help lead them forward,” he says.

Among the leaders Franklin references are four individuals he returns to throughout the book who not only worked for the common good, but invited and inspired others to get involved: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., King colleague and civil rights activist Ella Baker and farmworker activists Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chaves.

Lest his readers or students think otherwise, Franklin doesn’t claim that effective moral leaders are without fault. “These are red-blooded people,” he says. “They make mistakes.”

They also confront failure. Franklin tells the story of Benjamin Mays, the iconic 6th president of Morehouse, civil rights leader and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., who gave a final speech as president of Morehouse in which he talked about not only his successes, but his failures. “Mays reminds us that it is possible to work hard, accomplish much in a career and still feel unfulfilled relative to the dreams and expectations one had for oneself.”

In Franklin’s course this semester titled “Religion, Ethics and Public Intellectuals,” his students have been looking at “periods in American history where there was significant crisis and upheaval, and how public intellectuals of various stripes and vocations emerged to speak to that chaos and tried to recalibrate the moral compass.”

So far the class has studied the founding of the republic, the crisis surrounding the Civil War and the Great Depression. “Ironically,” he says, “this is the point in the semester where we planned to deal with our current period, which I had titled, ‘Our Zeitgeist.’” And what a zeitgeist it is.

In the classroom, Franklin is himself a sought-after moral leader and mentor — his foundational courses in the Laney Program in Moral Leadership at Candler draw students pursuing careers not only in theology, but education, health care and beyond. 

With his students, Franklin is quick to dispel the notion that only people who feel specially appointed to lead are capable of this, when in fact “opportunities for leadership can occur for all of us at any time.”

He tells the story of his grandmother, Martha Battle McCann, with whom his family lived in a house on the south side of Chicago in the 1960s. It was a time during Franklin’s boyhood that witnessed the civil rights movement — and street gang conflicts. 

“One day, two groups of young men were about to have a fight in the street in front of our house. She heard the escalation, ran out of the kitchen and down the stairs, aprons flying, and began to talk to them. 

“She said, ‘I have a garden here next door. I’ve grown fruits and vegetables and prepared food to feed your families. No mother wants to receive that phone call that her son is shot and wounded. I received that call when my son was shot in Italy during the war.’

“They backed away,” says Franklin. “Her act was a metaphor for observing courage, integrity and imagination.”  He dedicates the book’s prologue to her and to other change agents and moral leaders responsible for much of the good we see around us.

“Moral leadership is on the rebound,” says Franklin. “Social crisis, polarization, fear and a deeper hunger for a more just society create conditions for moral leaders to emerge.”

Beyond the classroom, Franklin is extending an invitation to those who seek moral leadership. “This book has a very practical goal: To stimulate conversations about the nature of moral leadership and why we need more of it now.”

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