Playing the Background

Not All Leaders are in the C-Level Suite
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In 2010, Christian rapper Lecrae released a song — “Background” — that touted the benefits of playing the background to God. The lyrics spell out some of the positions in life that we, as human beings, are not naturally striving for.

“You take the leading role, and I’ll take the background…”

“So word to every dancer for a pop star, ’Cause we all play the background…”

“So just let me shadow you…”

And of course the chorus: “I could play the background…and you can take the lead.”

The lyrics are meant to set the listener into a mode of worship, where they place God front and center and hopefully put their pride aside. Lecrae proclaims in the first verse that he knows he misses his cues and lines, and should not play the starring role as a result. It belongs to someone else.

Van Buren

Outside of the realm of the religious and spiritual, this is true within the human dimension as well. While plenty of us carry around a healthy dose of ambition — and some carry an unhealthy dose of it — the fact is that most of us are designed to be leaders without ever actually being a leader in an official capacity.

Martin Van Buren had all the makings of a potentially significant president. Much like one of his predecessors, John Quincy Adams, his resume was one that made his eventual rise to the Oval Office inevitable.

Born into a Dutch American family, Van Buren was involved in the Democratic Republican Party of New York. Once elected to the New York State Senate, Van Buren quickly found himself a leader of the Bucktails, a faction who opposed Governor DeWitt Clinton. After establishing himself as the most influential politician in New York, he was elected to the United States Senate in 1821. When the Democratic Republican Party split apart following the Election of 1824, Van Buren supported the new Jacksonian party — the Democrats.

When Andrew Jackson won in 1828 as the poster child of the new political party, Van Buren served as his Secretary of State and later as his Vice President, which set him up as Jackson’s heir apparent in 1836. His presidency lived under the shadow of the Jackson’s presidency and repeatedly, the eight president’s four years in office dealt with the consequences of the seventh’s.

Average President

The Panic of 1837, though much more of a complex event than can be blamed on one particular policy, was attributed to Van Buren’s continuation of Jackson’s anti-banks policy. He also continued Jackson’s controversial Indian Removal enforcement. He never recovered and lost the election of 1840 to William Henry Harrison of the newly formed Whig Party.

After the Democrats refused to nominate him as their presidential candidate in 1844, Van Buren still remained active in politics, and ran as a third party presidential candidate in 1848. He did not win there, either. Near the end of his life, and though remaining a Democrat, he supported President Abraham Lincoln’s policies at the onset of the Civil War.

Generally, historians have ranked him as an average or even below-average president. The eighth president of the United States, his legacy is more secured by his building of the Democratic Party and the return of the two-party system following the Era of Good Feelings.

This architect of the modern two-party system turned out to be a below-average leader of that same system he created.

Company Men

Van Buren’s career trajectory was similar to John Quincy Adams’s. Both men sported resumes that made it seem like success in the Presidential Mansion was inevitable. Both of these presidents are ranked rather poorly by historians, especially given the expectations that may have been on them as they entered office.

Van Buren especially reminds me of prototypical “company men.” Company man is a term meant to describe someone who has a great (and sometimes excessive) commitment to serving the interests of the organization (Wiktionary).

Obviously, it is beneficial for a company to employ a host of these company men. Why wouldn’t they want an army of devotees committed to the organizational mission? It is those company men, though, who have a tougher go at it. While certainly not all of them strive to be in the C-level suite, chances are a good many of them do… and obviously they will not all get there.

And that is not such a bad thing.

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