WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DAYS WHEN LEADERS, through hard work, ingenuity, and personality, could apply themselves to our greatest problems and solve them? Of course there are numerous factors, but the reality remains that our greatest difficulties are hardly matched by visionary leadership. As a society we quibble over minutiae and increments, but the bigger tasks escape us. Our present leadership at varying levels, and to greater or lesser degrees, bears much of the responsibility for that failure.
There is something different about today’s leaders. As with any election season, they continue to offer us boutique initiatives that cater to our self-interest, believing that it’s the best way to attract our attention. Sadly, they are largely correct, but it still doesn’t change the reality that most citizens no longer look to politics for either inspiration or solutions.
Today’s leaders seek to take us to a place that’s manageable or incremental. That’s okay as far as it goes provided that things are progressing smoothly overall. But they’re not, not even close. We don’t know what to do about our lethargy, lower voter turnout, escalating poverty and joblessness, democratic and infrastructure deficits, environmental calamities, even international insecurity.
As our problems become more complex and intractable, it isn’t a good sign when our leaders pride themselves as managers. We require visionaries, risk takers, and truth tellers. Sometimes, especially in seasons of growing crises, we require people to move us to the impossible, not the probable. We need those who will guide us to places that don’t yet exist. We still search for a truly democratic state. We continue to require a space that strikes the adroit balance between prosperity and social accountability. We yearn for education that is increasingly affordable. We need to find that sweet spot balancing individual opportunity and collective responsibility.
We require leaders to take us to places we have never been because, other than the modern awareness of climate change, where they are taking us at the moment is where we have been before. For centuries we sought to escape the trap of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, powerlessness, elitist privilege, and patriarchal myopia. Civilization is supposed to be about progressively moving beyond such things, not falling back into them.
This is what Vaclav Havel was referring to when, in speaking about leadership, especially in times of great national and global challenge, talked about “the art of the impossible.” Like Mandela, he accomplished what people said couldn’t be done by appealing to their intelligence and sense of social and political awareness. We need leaders who will take us down new paths and who, through their inspiration and belief in the citizenry, teach us how to adapt. We don’t need to be led to a slight alteration, but to our better selves.
In real terms, today’s leaders run the danger of being anti-leaders. By asking us to trust them, their policies, their political skills, they are ultimately requesting that we hand over the keys and trust them with the direction. We are now seeing where that is getting us. In a complex world, we can’t be led by an old world sense of hierarchy. We – citizens, voters, enlightened, empathetic, and lately too self-absorbed – want in on the action of power, not merely to observer it. We wish a hand in creating a world of new solutions. And for that we require a new kind of leadership.
This not a question of us reclaiming our birthright. We never had power in the first place; it always swirled in the area of hierarchical leaders. It’s a question of us now progressing to the point when power is shared, not just owned, monopolized, or exercised. Are we ready for it as citizens?
Gone are the days when we can conveniently leave the pressing tasks of leadership to the boardroom or the backroom. Tomorrow’s generation of leaders must be able to inspire us towards a cooperative way ahead instead of merely managing our collective decline. I believe those leaders will emerge and are readying themselves – women and men of courage and inclusiveness – but that we must first demand it, not only of them but ourselves.
In our present life everyone has an opinion. Some even have ideas. But it seems that no one has solutions. They must yet be discovered in those areas we once deemed as unreachable. We now stand between the inevitable and the impossible. Our next generation of leaders must shake off the former while leading us to the latter.
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