The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: society

Leaders Without Followers

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YOU CAN TELL LEADERSHIP IS IN TROUBLE when the leadership industry itself is worth some $50 billion dollars in the America alone. It’s not so much that more and more people are seeking out leadership positions, but that it is growing increasingly difficult to guide others, especially when our greatest problems never get solved.

According to Harvard University professor, Barbara Kellerman, in her new book, The End of Leadership, following years of research, she has become convinced leaders are no longer up to the greater tasks and that today’s present leadership training, while suitable four decades ago, no longer functions well today.

The reason? Average people themselves have changed. They no longer trust authority in the way they used to, and they definitely harbour great reserve about moves by the financial and political industries to woo them one way or another. Dominance, and the productive use of it, is no longer working in our institutions and even voluntary associations. Just because someone holds a leadership position doesn’t mean they are respected.

We have a federal election looming in the near future, and it’s a little disconcerting watching the party leaders move across the country bashing one another at the same time they maintain that we must work together if we are to provide a productive future. Such actions might indeed produced angry or skeptical voters, but it doesn’t stand a chance of inspiring them – no doubt a part of the reason our voter turnout remains low.

In world obsessed with producing leaders, why can’t we collectively get to our next stage of development as a society? It’s because followers have changed and are now demanding more share of power and decision-making. That was ideally what democracy was supposed to be about anyway. Now is the time to prove if it works. As Nancy Solomon put it: “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” We must begin asking better of our leaders, and the time has surely come to show more leadership and focus ourselves. Leadership used to be about the few; now it’s about the many. But for that to occur there must be a revolution in citizenship itself.

Is Leadership Dead?

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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.

Next post: Leadership and “followship”

 

The Long Road From Charity to Justice

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. HAD EXACTLY one year left before an assassin’s bullet struck him down and traumatized a nation. He had spent recent months attempting to break through the “indifference barrier” by drawing a direct link between racism to poverty. It wasn’t enough, he would maintain, to seek equal rights for black Americans if they remained mired in poverty. And so on this particular night, April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church, he laid it out as he had seen and experienced it:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And there it was. He was calling on the nation to give more to charity, but to also change its structure so that human justice and not mere charity became the ultimate motivator and goal. He assumed most knew the story of the Good Samaritan, of how a man is beaten and robbed, left by the road side, and of how a compassionate Samaritan helped him. He praised such actions, seeing them as a great aspect of the American character. Yet he reminded his generation that true compassion is attacking the forces and systems that leave others in need in the first place.

As King saw it, to those living on the margins of our communities, acts of charity and compassion should be our very first response to meet the need. But then there is the next stage. What caused it? Who is responsible? How can we change things at their source so that acts of charity are not as required as those were we help those who begin to find their footing?

Reflecting on King’s words years later, Nelson Mandela concurred: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” And as the south African leader knew, the prevailing system of his time would itself have to be changed if justice was to be achieved. He knew, as we all know deep within us, that if an economic and social system leaves huge fallout, then the very best of charitable generosity will never be enough. Will donating to a food bank alleviate hunger pangs? Absolutely. But it can never eradicate hunger itself. For that there must change at deeper levels.

Richard Nixon had a different point of view at that time, maintaining that the best method for eliminating poverty was to “enlist the greatest engine of progress ever developed – private enterprise.” In other words, Nixon was looking for millions of more Good Samaritans.

In a very real sense, the former president got his wish but not his desired outcome. The corporate structure that has taken over our public policy machinery has recruited a plentitude of corporate largesse for those at risk, offering funding, expertise, services, and leadership. But after almost half a century of this, where has it gotten us? Poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health and addictions – all these have grown, not diminished under Nixon’s structure.  They have had their opportunity; it has not worked.

The time has seriously come to ask ourselves, individual and collectively, “Will we just let everybody worry about themselves and rely on charitable donations of time and money to get by? Is this what we would want for ourselves if we remained mired in poverty? If so, then it won’t be too long until the damage created by present structure will become so great that prosperity will never be gained other than by a few.

Or will we be different? Will we reform by our actions and votes the deep and unjust structural inequalities at our nation’s core that favour power and abandon the powerless? To that wonderful Canadian trait of generosity and charity can we add a passion and understanding for justice? There are no quick fixes in justice – it is a long road – but the results last decades and lift millions out of their despair. Charity by itself is surely limited, but when added to sincere efforts at systemic restructuring it can become a springboard for change. Without serious reform, charity just leads to an ever-increasing cycle of hopelessness. Charity gives, but justice changes. What will we fight for, the present or the future?

Poverty’s Great Unknown – Facets of Us

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IN SPEAKING FREQUENTLY EACH WEEK, it’s becoming clear that more and more groups are broaching the subject of poverty and what might be done about it. They have become aware that the London Food Bank is attempting to develop a new model in which people can be treated with greater dignity, offered more personal choice, and achieve success at avoiding the problems of “poverty stigmatism.” In an interview yesterday I was asked why the food bank doesn’t just close its doors and get on with the delivering a new way of doing things.

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: communities are complex organisms and if any change is to prove successful, then citizens, organizations, and food bank users themselves must be brought into the development phase of a new model. Whatever answers emerge from such an exercise will carry the authority of a community sense of ownership as opposed to one group merely deciding on its own.

But there is a second problem, and it effectively impacts the above exercise in confounding and complex ways. I speak of the very stubbornness of poverty itself in this country. Part of our trouble in finding solutions concerns our collective ignorance of the poverty dilemma. Just as a taste of what we are referring to, the next two posts will consider some things most people don’t know about poverty and its presence in our communities.

1) Child poverty in Canada remains far too high, even after two decades of attempts to lower it. According to UNICEF’s recent survey, this country is below average among wealthy nations when it comes to dealing effectively with children in difficult economic situations. The survey highlighted the fact that in Canada 13.3% represents the number of those children in poverty, as opposed to 11% in 35 other advanced economies. Worse still, a full one-half of First Nations children remain mired in poverty. For any food bank this is a significant problem. Slightly under 40% of clients serviced by the London Food Bank are children 17 and under, and their needs won’t be going away until we take their plight seriously.  And that means assisting their parents.

2) The burdens of poverty are different depending on which group we are talking about. Economic stringency doesn’t hit everyone universally the same. People with disabilities face unique challenges compared to, say, someone unemployed. Single parents must take a different approach than two-parent families. Immigrants face an extensive list of challenges. Troublingly, the number of seniors with fixed pensions coming to food banks is increasing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to poverty and no food bank can underestimate this reality.

3) It’s difficult to get a true measure of poverty, and the termination of Statistics Canada Long Form Census only makes this exploration more difficult. Recently the London Food Bank partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph, with funding from the London Community Foundation, to inaugurate the London Poverty Research Centre for a specific reason: it remains a very difficult thing to acquire evidence-based statistics on those living in poverty. The Centre, now under the auspices of Kings University College, is seeking to develop a city-wide data base that can be used by all groups and individuals to get something of an accurate assessment on just how deep the constraints of poverty go in our community. You can’t really consider changing your model until your know what you’re up against.

4) Debt is becoming a serious problem. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average Canadian household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to a new high of 163.4%. That means that the average Canadian owes $1.63 (CDN) for every dollar they earn. That’s problematic for most of us, but what about those below the poverty line? Many worked up until just a year or two ago, but now that they are unemployed their personal debt makes getting ahead all the more difficult. And Canadians caught up in such a debt cycle are often resistant to government interventions for the poor that require tax investments.

We can segregate those trapped in poverty all we like, but at some point their numbers increase to a level where we have to acknowledge that the lack of solutions says something about us, not them.  “There is no Them.  There are only facets of Us,” says author John Green.  The fact that we permit the reality of poverty to grow in our midst is merely a sign of our lack of imagination and our desire to leave it for others to solve.  It should be clear now that nothing will transpire until those “facets of Us” that accept the status quo are no longer acceptable to us and that the better angels of our nature can never emerge if we permit the clutches of poverty to claim so many among us.

Tomorrow:Poverty’s Great Unknown (2)

 

 

Do You Hear the People Sing?

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FOR THOSE POLITICAL AND FINANCIAL LEADERS who don’t necessarily like hearing that the status quo is under deep suspicion by citizens, communities, and groups worldwide, here are a couple of other headaches for you. Your problems are growing.

Universities have always been seedbeds of reform and activism, but many will be surprised to learn that on campuses across Europe, in Tel Aviv, and New York, students of economics have gained ground in raising their opposition to their peers and mentors who feel that their field is a science and that there is little can be done. Not so, says the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics – a fancy name but with a gutsy mandate.

We want to ultimately create a space in which economic solutions to society’s problems can be generated.  United across borders, we call for a change of course in economics.

You can’t get much more resolved than that and I trust capitalist leaders are listening.

The student’s movement, and those like it, are saying it’s time to take economics out of the sterile lab and into the highways and byways of where people actually live. And they are driven by anger. Following the economic crash of 2008 and the financial sector’s quick return to business as usual, these movements called for change, only to be ignored across the board by those in the very field they were studying in universities across the globe. Of course economics is something of a science and these students are learning their craft, but it is also about people and populations, environmental degradation and poverty, community decline and the lack of political will. They are marching to the call that it’s time science and humanity came together for economies that actually work and don’t just leave these challenges in stasis.

In another development, on May 22, a conference titled, “The New Populism” is being held in Washington D. C. and features the highly popular Senator Elizabeth Warren as its keynote speaker. It’s a tough conference for the financial and political elites to ignore when people like Warren are participating.

Two years of polling has revealed that Americans are becoming increasingly more populist in political outlook and community-driven in their economic priorities. They, too, are angry and starting to fight back over what they perceive as huge indulgences among the elite when so many citizens have fallen by the wayside following the economic meltdown. It was their hope that things would change following the financial calamity, but when corporate and political leaders managed to protect their increased financial rewards from legal scrutiny, people began organizing at significant enough levels to capture national attention.

In so many ways, Elizabeth Warren has unleashed the floodgates of populism and is a rarity – a popular politician prepared to take on the system and call it to account. Her bestselling book and frequent pointed questions at committee hearings have given confidence to citizens who previously stood on the fringe in their anger, but who now have come together to accomplish exactly what Warren has called for – a citizen’s alternative to the prevailing elitism. The website populistmajority.org unveiled some polling that, if true, speak to new tensions ahead. Among the findings:

  • More than half of those polled think the problems that led to the financial crisis have not been fixed
  • Two-thirds believe that Wall Street financial institutions actually make it harder to find good jobs
  • Two-thirds believe there should be more government oversight of financial institutions
  • Nine out of ten believe it is important to regulate financial services in order to ensure fairness toward customers
  • 83% believed financial leaders should be held accountable for actions that result in considerable negative effects on society in general

It’s no accident that most of the interest in the movement finds its source on the centre-left side of the political spectrum, yet the targets of their outrage including well-known Democratic and independent leaders like Bill Clinton and even President Obama for coalescing around the financially comfortable when so many have been thrown under the financial juggernaut.

As you would expect, there are many naysayers, and yet these two movements – students of economics and populism – are gaining a level of attraction and attention unseen in years. And they are going right after the heart of economic and political indifference. Their real power might not be in their astute arguments but in the sense of fervor they can create in societies growing restless for economic and political change. Even if they are doomed like those manning the ramparts in Les Miserables, shouting: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again,” they will ultimately usher in a movement of social and financial equality that can yet capture the hearts of a citizenship remained dormant too long. The next generation is coming and hopefully it gains success before we have wasted our human future.

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