I remember as a 20-something hearing C. Everett Koop talking on smoking and AIDS as if he was part sage, part family doctor, part national leader. In fact, he was all those things, and more. With his death on Monday, he reminds us about what it means to lead.
Koop was appointed surgeon general by President Reagan in 1981 and fast made his mark. He was able to speak about complex issues in public terms without making things overly simplistic. He didn't talk down to people, but rather engaged them: he made his argument, he marshaled the facts, he told you what he thought, and asked you to think with him. He was as forthright talking before congressional hearings as he was in less political settings.
In current terms, I would say he was "authentic" and even if you didn't agree with him you felt he had people's interests at heart.
What I also remember about Koop was his surgeon general's uniform, which he wore as head of the Public Health Service. The New York Times, in a beautiful obituary today, reported that the uniform "was intended to help restore his diminishing authority as surgeon general." But I remember it less as a political move and more as a genuine expression of his service. His efforts were on behalf of the American public, in service to the American public, about the American public.
We need more leaders like Koop today. Willing to put themselves out there, clearly committed to service, able to take the hits that will come their way. Some people might say we don't have any leaders like him nowadays. I disagree. There are mayors, governors, heads of public libraries and United Ways, and neighborhood activists, among others, with whom I meet everyday who share the spirit of Koop. They may have a hard time breaking through all the noise right now, but they are there. Of course, we could use more of them - but they are there.
Our challenge today is to identify and stand next to such leaders, especially thosewith whom we may disagree, but for whom we continue to hold respect for their service and spirit. Only then will we be able to create a critical mass of leaders who, despite their differences, can come together to figure out how to move forward.
So as we reflect on C. Everett Koop's life, I ask you what leader do you respect who serves in the spirit of Koop and what makes you want to celebrate them, even if you don't agree with them?