Jane Addams’ Hull House
Jane Addams advised leaders to temper their idealism so that they could mobilize social support in order actually to make progress. “[The leader] has to discover what people really want, and then ‘provide the channels in which the growing moral force of their lives shall flow.’” It is common today for leaders to be advised to get to know the people who are actually or potentially on their team, and getting to know people surely includes learning what they want. I’m struck with the moral ingredient in her leadership—to sense a “growing moral force” in people. Many people speak of moral decline today, and I imagine that this was true in her day as well; but she saw something more—a hunger and a quest to be a better person, not a dominant force in everyone’s life, but present in everyone and active in many.
Addams continues: “What [the leader] does attain . . . is not the result of his individual striving, as a solitary mountain climber beyond the sight of the valley multitude, but it is underpinned and upheld by the sentiments and aspirations of many others.” Just as a poet senses poetry in everyday circumstances, the true leader senses the feelings and idealism in people.
Then she introduces a distinction between what she calls vertical and lateral progress. Wise leadership combines scientific realism with spiritual idealism. Being in touch with people puts a brake on idealism and generates a more powerful kind of progress. “Progress [is] slower perpendicularly, but incomparably greater because lateral. [The leader] has not taught his contemporaries to climb mountains, but he has persuaded the villagers to move up a few feet higher. . . . Our thoughts, at least for this generation, cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between, unless we hold the mind open, to take strength and cheer from a hundred connections.” This poetic blend of uncommon insights Addams wove spontaneously from the harvest of her decades of total dedication to her mission.
Then we hear the testimony of seasoned genius: “To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.”
The keys to her success included nature and nurture, gifts and education, and teamwork, visible and invisible. According to Ellen Starr, Addams’s spirituality was the source of their project at Hull-House: “It is as if she simply diffused something which came from outside herself of which she is the luminous medium . . . .” Her spirituality was free of dogmatism. In college she probed, trying to find, behind the systems of religion, “a great Primal cause—not nature, exactly but a fostering Mother, a necessity, brooding and watching over all things, above every human passion . . . . [And I would] go ahead building my religion wherever I can find it, from the Bible and observation, from books and people, and in no small degree from Carlyle.”
Thus we glimpse the fusion of gifts and accomplishments in one of our great leaders in social service.
In small ways every day, we have opportunities for leadership, by taking initiative in a social situation, by providing guidance for a partner in some project of cooperation, or in more obvious ways. In what ways do you provide leadership? Are you preparing yourself—or being prepared—to function as a leader at some future time? What do you make of the example of Jane Addams in this regard?
The first quotations come from Jane Addams, “A Modern Lear” (1912), in Jean Bethke Elshtain, A Jane Addams Reader (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 175-76. The last two quotation come from John C. Farrell, Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams’ Ideas on Reform and Peace (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), 61-62 and 35. Photo credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/23/UIC_Hull_House.JPG/640px-UIC_Hull_House.JPG