The Drum Major Instinct

You may remember the term, “The Drum Major Instinct,” used in a famous sermon preached in 1968 by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a short two months before he was assassinated. In that sermon, King pointed to the all-too-human tendency to want to be noticed, to be out front, leading the parade. This instinct, when left unmonitored, can cause us to be overly-absorbed with the “I” instead of the “We”, to tempt us to live beyond our means, and to view the world in terms of how it relates to and circles around “Me.” As an alternative, King reminded us that greatness is not about being the drum major, but about serving. It was not about always being out in front, but also following a belief and a way of life.

That image has always been a powerful one for me, given that I was an actual drum major all the way through high school and college. Obviously, I loved being out front. But I also discovered, through the experience of being a drum major, just how hard being out front can be.

In the autumn of 1971, just three years after King’s tragic death, the college I attended experienced some real racial tension, particularly dealing with athletic teams and the fraternities popular among athletes at the college. During the week leading up to the college’s homecoming football game, a number of forums were held where students discussed both overt and covert forms of racism in various arenas of college life. It was a tense time for that community, and there was considerable question whether the African-American students on the football team would boycott the game on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday came, and at the football stadium a group of students of all races gathered with signs protesting what they saw as a community that had not yet come to terms with the issue of race. Throughout the first half of the football game, they were a quiet but obvious presence.

It came time for halftime, and our marching band (with me out front!) was all set to take the field for our show. All of a sudden, the group of protesting students took the field and made use of the PA system set up for the homecoming festivities. Briefly, they sought to put words to their concerns. Their presence on the field was greeted with a good amount of boos and jeers from the stadium crowd. I remember one man in the crowd yelling out, “Where is the American flag?” I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been for those students protesting that day to be greeted with such a harsh response from the very crowd before which they sought to make their case.

It was my job, and my job alone, to get the band in motion, and many were calling out, both from the stadium as well as from the band behind me, to ignore the protest and get the band marching down the field, a scenario that would have produced certain chaos. I had to make the call. There was no one to turn to who would help me make that quick decision. Fortunately, something inside of me told me to stay put, let the students have their say, then get on with the halftime festivities with whatever amount of time we had left.

Very few times in my life have I felt so alone, and looking back on that moment I remain amazed at how much pressure a solitary twenty-year old felt that autumn afternoon, the air so full of tension and the voices ringing in my ear.

Those of us who have led or currently lead schools know of such situations, where all eyes are on you and there is no luxury of time or counsel on how to respond.

As I lived out my drum major instinct that day, I believe I learned two things. First, one cannot simply follow the advice of the loudest or largest number of voices. If I would have taken the advice of the stadium crowd that day, an already tense Saturday afternoon would have dissolved into confrontation. 

Secondly, sometimes the best option is to hold back, practice the fine art of doing nothing, and hold one’s ground. How well I recall, many years later, the words of William Sloane Coffin when he said, “The most eloquent expression of power is restraint.” That afternoon I did not feel particularly eloquent, but had I simply resorted to the power I possessed or was being encouraged to use a very tragic situation might have evolved.

There is, of course, another lesson learned from this context. It is what all of our schools do each day: they teach the lessons of life in ways that are far more powerful than many of the lessons of the classroom. I give thanks for all I learned in college, but nothing comes close in depth or meaning to what I learned that Saturday afternoon in October, out there in front of everyone.