What is conservative leadership? Sen. Mike Kopp’s answer

Centennial Institute honored Mike Kopp, former Colorado Senate Minority Leader, with the Zebulon Pike Award for Colorado Leadership in Fidelity to Jeffersonian Principles at a ceremony on Dec. 6.

The award will be presented annually to an outstanding conservative who has set a high example for Coloradans, providing a landmark as Pike’s mountain did for the 1806 exploring party sent out by President Jefferson, said Centennial Institute director John Andrews.

Kopp, who led the Senate Republicans from spring 2010 until his resignation for family reasons in 2011, spoke as follows in accepting the Zebulon Pike Award:

Thank you for this honor. The idea of this particular award is an intimidating one. I hope my attempt to justify my being its first recipient will not fall short. Many of my former legislative colleagues are here, and if I embellish too greatly they’re likely to call a caucus and censure me for perjury. So it is intimidating to me to receive this, especially from people I so deeply admire, for two reasons:

First, Zebulon Pike himself. The man truly lived an extraordinarily courageous life, while it lasted just 34 years. Pike was always ready to risk for the country he loved. He led men in the exploration of the resources of an unknown land. The pattern of his life and leadership was to habitually trade away personal safety in order to accept uncertain leadership assignments fraught with real peril. This compulsion of his to do his country’s bidding ultimately drove him to the battlefield at York where he gave his own life for a fledgling republic in the War of 1812.

Secondly, to be recognized for conservative leadership in a time when Coloradans want reassurance that our best hopes about America can still be gamely pursued, assumes that this recipient has played a significant role in leading that pursuit. A role? Perhaps. How significant? Certainly a small one. In any event, that question can’t be the important one for any leader to ask.

No, the important question is this: what problems in society am I presently analyzing in order to apply trustworthy conservative wisdom to so that conservatism can lay claim on the future just as it has in the past?

If we don’t ask this question of ourselves, regularly, are we not thereby forgetting that the future of a free and prosperous America is both the birthright of our children and a vapor that can quickly vanish if conservative leaders don’t prevail?

And what is conservative leadership if it’s not accompanied by the courage and appetite for risk that Pike’s life so beautifully epitomized? It is nothing. It is only words. It won’t do. And besides, there’s plenty of people already engaging in it.

Words do not the future make. Actions do.

But our actions, friends, need to be bigger than we’ve ever dared. Decisive. Persistent. Wise. Timely. Consequential. Ambitious. Not just ambitious, transformational.

Because anything less has us acting as mere managers stuck in a system we feel powerless to change. Let’s not be that generation of conservatives.

Pike may well have been the kind of transformational leader we need today. Why not think of ourselves as scouts just as he was? In all situations, let’s force ourselves to look beyond our circumstance. Let’s grasp the whole context, not just a few of the interior parts, and further assume that it can be shaped by us into something different than it is as the moment. Something that more closely aligns with a conservative worldview.

This is the legacy of a Pike, or a Madison, or a Lincoln, or Goldwater or Reagan. That’s the shadow that we have been blessed to labor in and that we ourselves now must help enlarge for the sake of our posterity.

Yes, just imagine if each us leaned into the belief that the Almighty is actually concerned with how we govern ourselves. And imagine the outcomes if we further embraced that understanding as a sign of our personal leadership responsibility to claim the future?

I think that is the work of CCU and the Centennial Institute. That is why I am humbled to participate in some small way with them in that endeavor. It is why we should all be very proud indeed of the quality leadership that is guiding that ship.

In conclusion, while I feel unworthy of an award like this, I do lay claim to Martin Luther King’s brilliant leadership proclamation, when he said: “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”

Fellow conservative leaders, may it be so with us, too. Thank you.

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