Transitioning With Dignity

Pierre Quinn

I had a handful of excellent teachers in college.  Everything about their class cultivated in me a desire to learn.

They made me feel welcome. They made me feel special. They challenged me to do more and to live up to my potential. In the vernacular of education, we call them master teachers. 

Some of the most disappointing moments of my educational experience came when I had to transition from a master teacher to someone else. It was bound to happen. You can’t take all your classes from the same teacher. Like it or not the system is designed for you to experience different teaching methodologies. Many of us have survived the feeling of knowing a few days into the semester that the class we were sitting in would never come close to our previous experiences with masters. 

I write this post on the eve of the presidential inauguration accepting the fact that, like it or not, the system is designed for us to experience the leadership styles of more than one commander-in-chief. While I cannot say that I applauded every policy and political strategy of President Obama, I cannot deny the fact that he was a master whose legacy is etched in history.

He mastered oratory

As an undergrad student in 2004 I watched the Democratic National Convention. The soaring rhetoric of a junior Senator from Illinois moved many political commentators to say that “Obama sounds so Presidential”. This ability to tell a compelling story and drive home a point was a hallmark of his Presidency. He blended the wit of a great comedian, the intellectual insights of an academic, and the nuances of a southern preacher. The speeches of Obama will be studied for years to come. As leaders, we would do well to follow his example of speaking with clarity and intentionality.

He mastered approachability

Major news outlets touted the story of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia’s trip to the White House. Jacob’s father was ending his time as a member of the White House staff and the custom is for those exiting their positions to take a family picture with the president. After the photo, young Jacob asked President Obama a question that seems to characterize his tenure. Jacob wanted to know if the president’s hair was like his. The commander-in-chief bent low and is quoted as saying, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” The picture of this experience hung in the White House for years. There have been countless moments when, while wearing the great mantle of responsibility, President Obama remained cloaked in a spirit of approachability. He made you feel like he was willing to have a conversation with anyone. Many of us have a handful of stories where we knew someone who was great on stage but not good with people. Obama wasn’t in that category.

He mastered relevance

The popular culture embraced President Obama. Whether it was his talk show appearances, basketball games with White House staffers, or conversations with YouTube stars, Obama has always appeared relevant to the culture. From the young adults that pioneered the social media tactics behind his first presidential campaign to his efforts to stay current with the music of this generation, Obama has never been viewed by the popular culture as an outsider. He was embraced as a welcome presence.

He’s mastering the transition

The months and weeks leading up to Obama’s transition out of the White House I watched as he approached his public appearances and speaking engagements showering others with messages of hope. He even challenged a crowd to respect the freedom of a Trump supporter who was causing a disturbance during one of Obama’s speeches. He’s providing a model of what it means to bow out gracefully and is transitioning with dignity. 

Here on the eve of inauguration it appears that our new President does not exhibit the same qualities as the President that we are losing. His oratory is not masterful. He does not exude approachability. He is not embraced by popular culture. So, the question is how are we supposed to respond to him? This was a similar question that I asked one my master teachers in a discussion about a professor who was not doing a very good job of connecting with the class. The response from the master teacher was that I should do my best to support the teacher in making the class an environment where people learn.

I didn’t want to do that. 

I wanted to get through the semester by complaining about the professor I had and pleading for the professor I wanted. I would grimace at their teaching style and was tempted to join the ranks of those who skipped the class often during the semester. It took a few weeks, but I finally began to grasp the idea the master teacher was trying to cultivate. She wanted me to treat my current professor with the same dignity and respect that I treated her. I took her advice to do my best to support. Not only did I survive the class but I helped a few others survive too. 

If we live long enough, eventually we will be a successor to a great leader. We will replace someone who people wrote amazing stories about. We will follow someone who had crowds weeping at their departure. We will face the reality that in this new context our words may fall flat, our approach may seem distant, and we will fight to be relevant. Others will not like us only because we are not the person who we are replacing. In those moments, we can only hope that the leader that we followed compelled the people to treat their successor with the same respect given to them.

Maybe we should transition with dignity too. Maybe our social media rants and heated conversations about our displeasure are not marks of dignity. Maybe dignity means fighting to make the areas connected to your circle of influences places where change is made and the gospel is experienced. Maybe we’re all in one of the many learning experiences of life where we don’t like the teacher but we are called on to make a difference in the class anyway. Maybe Jesus is still using the idea of the evidence that we follow him being how we love others, especially leaders we don’t care for. Even if that leader is our new president.

Pierre Quinn


Pierre Quinn currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Breath of Life Seventh-day Adventist Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. He recently published his second book Re:Vision: Receiving What Happens Next, A 21-Day Devotional Guide in which readers are challenged to dream, imagine, and plan again like it was the first time. He and his family reside in Laurel, Maryland.

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