Saturday, 26 March 2011

In the company of greatness

I’m incredibly fortunate to occasionally have the opportunity to meet people whose lives have profoundly influenced me – and often they have also influenced the lives of millions of others. These past few weeks have given me the opportunity to get to know three more, and I want to pay tribute to them today, and explain what gift they have which has left such a great impression on me.

First up is someone I met at the British Library, who talked about an incident in his life which really did change the pace of history. His name - Clarence B Jones. And what did he do? Well, he is the former personal counsel, advisor, draft speech writer and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And the words he drafted formed the first part of that historic speech that Martin King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in August 1963. This was the defining moment of the American civil rights movement. And lets not forget just how influential Martin King has been. As Clarence explained: Except for Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Martin Luther King, Jr., in 12 years and 4 months from 1956 to 1968, did more to achieve political, economic, and social justice in America than any other event or person in the previous 400 years.

Next up is someone I met at the House of Lords, who had arranged for members of the Government Panel of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists to dine on the terrace overlooking the River Thames. She had played a significant role in a crisis that had engulfed America – and the whole world, the previous winter. As a member of British Naval Intelligence, Pat had been asked to urgently travel to Gibraltar to review photographs of soviet ships that had just passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Were these ships carrying telegraph poles, or something more sinister, en route to their end destination? Her timely analysis of just what the ships were carrying gave President John F Kennedy more time to deal with what became known as the Cuban missile crisis, and war was averted.

And finally I want to pay tribute to someone I met at the Swedenborg Hall in Bloomsbury a few nights ago. He is an actor who, in 1992, literally blew my socks off when I saw him make his first entrance in Nicholas Hytner’s historic production of Carousel at the National Theatre. For the first time in my experience of the history of professional musical theatre, Mr Enoch Snow and Carrie were case as an interracial couple, and Enoch Snow was played by the amazing Clive Rowe. His first appearance drew gasps of astonishment, as this big black man just seemed to magically rose up through the floor of the stage, and sing with an amazingly rich baritone voice. He completely charmed the entire house within seconds. His performance gelled the cast in what remains one of the NT’s very greatest productions.

What do these three remarkable people have in common? An uncanny conviction that they can face a potentially hostile audience and deliver a message that will bring them on side. A quiet confidence, not arrogance. A belief that by setting out the situation, as they see it, others will be inclined to follow their line of thought. And a sense of purpose and humility, principally acting for others, rather than for themselves.

In essence, they are leaders. Leaders in very different fields, but leaders all the same. But meeting them, I have learnt to discover the essence of their greatness – which relates to their humility. They are brilliant communicators because they open themselves up to their critics. They are not afraid to engage in conversation with people they’ve never met before. They have the confidence to be open because they have no ego to protect. And they are unfailingly polite.

I do hope that I’ll also have the confidence to be open, and have the courage to challenge concepts I feel to be questionable. Why keep it all buttoned up inside me when I could, with some effort, take the time to set out precisely what my point is, and invite others to share – or disagree with that view.

It’s easy to remain quiet – it’s far harder to put your neck on the line and put your thoughts on-line, for everyone to read.