The Spectacle Blog

Where have all the leaders gone?

By on 10.22.08 | 2:35PM

Christian Science Monitor has an article today by David Gergen and Andy Zelleke in which they discuss why America is not producing the same caliber of leaders it once did.  

Several years ago, the pioneering leadership scholar Warren Bennis wondered how it could be that the much smaller society at the time of the United States' founding could have produced six world-class leaders: Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Franklin – while in recent times, he suggested, we seem to struggle to find even one or two.

Indeed, at the presidential level, our survey indicates that relatively few Americans believe they will be choosing, on Nov. 4, between two good leaders (albeit proponents of divergent policy agendas).

I've often thought about the same thing, and insomuch as they point out that there is a problem, I agree.   But in spite of the fact that Gergen and Zelleke work at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School, this article doesn't seem to benefit from any real understanding of the etiology of America's leadership problems.  In order to understand how they would need to be fixed, you have to understand why they exist.

Gergen and Zelleke's solution is to blame it all on the policymakers, who we are to believe have squandered the public's confidence, and then to urge those policymakers to fix it themselves:

The near-perfect storm of challenges facing the nation has created an urgent need for better leadership. But how do we restore the public's confidence in leaders in our most important institutions and sectors?

They have to earn it back.

Those of us who work in these domains have ample opportunity - and in these troubled times, the responsibility - to do our part.

They go on to explain that accomplishing this rehabilitation of the public's confidence will require that policymakers "be extaordinarily competent" and "demonstrate greater commitment to the common good and less to their own self-interest."  Well, yeah.  That would be good.


Here's my take on the subject of leadership in America, which I will mostly confine to the sphere of politics:

To come straight to it, we in modern America elect our politicians to represent us--not to lead us.  The distinction is important: representation and leadership often take very different forms.  Representatives are the candidates next door; they adjust their dialects to whatever crowd is present (Cf. the much reviled Peggy Noonan article) they dissemble and equivocate in the most insultingly obvious ways, and in general seek to assure constituents that life will be easier under their auspices.  Above all, they do not point out Joe Six-Pack's vices or flaws.

Leadership, on the other hand, must sometimes tack against the prevailing winds.  All great leaders share one defining quality: the audacity to challenge and to admonish their followers to rise to some unfulfilled potential.  That often requires that a leader be candid and tell people the truth, whether they want to hear it or not.  To tell people the truth requires that you respect them.  For people to permit you to tell them the truth requires that they respect you.

We don't have that respect in America right now, nor do we really want leaders.  The populism of our middle-class runs deep, and in ages past, that was part of her strength.  Americans have never had much patience for elite rule.  But inherent in that populism is a narcissism.  We want to have our prejudices reinforced.  We want to be reassured that we lost our houses because bankers bamboozled us to line their own pockets.  None of it's our fault.

So that's what we're told by our politicians.  If a candidate were actually to tell us the truth, his candidacy would be a spectacular failure.  Can you imagine the combination of baffled horror and furious rejection that would be in store for any Presidential candidate who told us the truth about how we got into this financial crisis?  I can imagine it now: "Well, to be honest, Main St., for decades many among you have been incautious with your investments and have racked up more and more personal debt.  Your eagerness to get something for nothing is the sickness, and nothing the government can do will really cure it.  It's up to you to be smarter and more responsible." 

In urging wisdom and selflessness, Gergen and Zelleke ask the impossible of policymakers.  Those two qualities do not currently float in Washington.  Likewise, when they ask leaders to act like leaders, they ignore that these people were not elected on the basis of leadership, but instead on the ability to lie skillfully.  We Americans want our leaders to lie to us.  Seeing them do so neither surprises us nor bothers us--in fact, it feels pretty good.  And here I come to my ultimate response to Gergen and Zelleke, which takes the form of two axioms:

1. The leadership of a legitimate, representative government ultimately reflects the values of its people.

2. Where truth is valued over self-interest, it flourishes. The contrapositive: Where truth does not flourish, it is not valued over self-interest.

Americans have the "leadership" they want.  That they are unhappy with it, anyway, only speaks to their unhappiness with themselves.  And that is the true source of the current national malaise.  

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