Like many, I have been astonished by the outpouring of sympathy and sense of loss following Tim Russert's death from Americans from all walks of life. What encapsulates their sentiments best is that they will miss Tim because they trusted him as an honest arbiter of political news. As much as those who knew Tim personally will miss him, the greatest loss is that Tim Russert was an American Trustee at a time when the country badly needs them.
Harvard Professor Howard Gardner introduced me to the idea of "societal trustees" last year and it has been percolating since. Gardner defines trustees as well-known people who are considered to be objective and respected as "wise" men or women, trusted by both elites and the masses alike for guidance.
Historically, Gardner says, these trustees included the likes of Dean Acheson, John W. Gardner (no relation), or Elliot Richardson - people with great integrity and purpose who could be relied upon to put the country's interests above partisanship. Examples of current American Trustees could include Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, George Shultz, Tom Brokaw, Paul Farmer, Wendy Kopp, Warren Buffett, David Gergen, or respected university presidents and religious leaders.
Tim Russert exemplified the qualities of an American Trustee, which explains why so many prominent figures paid their highest respects to him while Americans across the nation wept about losing a trusted friend.
America needs trustees now more than ever. Just ask anyone who has served in Washington over a long period of time and they will make the same argument: the atmosphere in Washington has become increasingly personal, partisan, and even destructive. George Shultz, Leon Panetta, and Tim himself have all made that same point over the past year-and-a-half. We desperately need American Trustees who can transcend that partisanship and act as honest arbiters of citizens' interests.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we rely upon American Trustees like Tim Russert to provide a steadying influence through their actions and commitments. These commitments can include civic or philanthropic endeavors, media appearances and projects, teaching or public speaking, corporate or non profit boards, affiliations with non partisan interest groups (such as the Council of Foreign Relations), books, or mentoring and role modeling to future generations of leaders.
Being an American Trustee is an awesome responsibility, but it's one that Tim Russert was acutely aware of and felt deeply. The first step to advance American Trusteeship would be to help other trustees understand the significance of their national role.
One way we can honor Tim Russert's life and impact, while beginning to fill the void he has left, is by reminding America's Trustees of the importance and magnitude of their societal roles. When these leaders think of themselves as American Trustees, their near-term commitments will not only likely change, but we will also have a reservoir of leaders who are better prepared to confront national crises, act as arbiters on commissions (such as the Iraq Study Group), or the like. Please join me in this undertaking and let us, as a like-minded and patriotic group, lock arms to identify and support America's current and future trustees.
Peter Sims is the coauthor (with author Bill George) of the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek bestselling book on leadership, "True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership."