Few would argue that there is a crisis of leadership across the world. Our own situation over the vote to leave the European Union is a case in point. Others would look to the USA where, arguably, according to many Americans, Mr Trump is the worst president ever. Examples of totalitarian dictatorships abound, and not always in developing nations. Corruption and nepotism dominate the agenda supported by some leaders whose people know only to well what it means to live as second class citizens while those in power take what they want, never based on need. All in all it is not difficult to paint a negative picture of leadership in action. The intention in this post is to explore just one aspect of this complex subject, expressed in the form of a simple question.
What is required of ALL leaders in the present global community, facing an uncertain future?
Whilst the question itself might seem simple, the answer is not. It requires reference to how demands on leaders have altered over time and how changes in leadership style and behaviours have to happen in order to deliver what is now urgently needed at every level of governance.
The History of Change
There probably was a time, long ago, when most leaders chose themselves. Then, communities would have accepted this as a necessary price to pay if they felt secure as a result. Strength of arm and character were likely seen as the basic ingredients required to ensure group survival. Basically, these would have been the warrior chiefs who established their dynasties in response to this challenge, sometimes extending their reign over many generations.
Eventually, and as the accumulation of knowledge progressed, leaders needed new qualities, especially in cultures with aspirations to expand their influence into other territories. Where nations pursued colonial expansion, trade assumed an even greater importance than hitherto. With this came the need for clerical workers, the civil servants to carry out the practical administrative tasks of running a society. Policy decisions were made by leaders and those close to them at the top, and until the latter part of the middle ages that system was workable, even if it was far from egalitarian at its core.
It has been claimed that it would have been possible for a single, gifted individual to have a grasp of all that was known about the world at that time. In such an environment, it was feasible for wise leaders to have a command of what was necessary to be effective and survive, but the balance between shaping the future and having at their personal disposal the knowledge to bring that to bear was becoming more difficult to maintain. So it was that the long established tradition of employing advisers to help shape the direction of change expanded beyond all previous levels.
Ultimately, the sum of all human knowledge grew with no seeming limits. Certainly in science and engineering, for example, new disciplines were created to cope with the volume of new knowledge. So it is that we find ourselves in a situation where it is impossible for one individual to know more than a fraction of what there is to know about even one sub-discipline. Just taking the development of lasers as an example, there are separate specialisms to cope with changing demands in medical science, in weapons technology, in advanced communications technology, in metallergy and a host of other aspects. Specialism in one does not transfer easily to others.
World leaders are required to function differently in this environment. Having a finger on the pulse has become a huge challenge. Little wonder, therefore, that they now make use of huge numbers of advisers and sources, as well as consulting with many different experts in determining policy direction. But this has not taken place in a vacuum.
Against this backdrop there has been an even greater development in commercial expansion with huge independent corporations funding research into new and more profitable goods, services and technologies, mainly for profit and lobbying politicians for their backing. These developments have often run counter to the best interests of the wider society, as is the case in health care and education (more to come on these two areas). This has added a layer of interaction in leadership that has become increasingly influential in decision making. The history of political lobbying is littered with examples of just how damaging this development has been and continues to be. One recent example will illustrate this perfectly.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, long regarded as ways of extending human capabilities and benefiting future generations, comes with a health warning as this report from Future of Life Institute from 2016 informs us. Tech giants are mainly keen to encourage all developments that appear to have commercial potential. The profit motive trumps most other considerations and armies of lobbyists are employed to promote such developments aggressively, even at the expense of moral and ethical considerations. Already significant changes to employment and employability have been evidenced. Greater care in making such sweeping changes is called for and quality of leadership is central to this.
It is against this exponential expansion of ‘big business’ and vested interest that new ways of balancing the demands of society with those of individuals and the environment are demanded. Largely, this is not happening. Largely, this is why, currently, we are living in such challenging times, lacking the quality of leadership we so desperately need if we are to stave off the threat of irreversible climate and other changes. Business as usual is not an option and the clock is ticking.
WHAT DO WE NEED OF OUR LEADERS?
1 It is vital that leaders acknowledge the threat we face by making sure that in every policy area where the opportunity exists to take positive action to cut emissions of all greenhouse gases, this is done.
2 Equally important is that leaders admit to the possible negative impact of vested interest and that where this exists they seek wider council to ensure the balance is right between the needs of the economy and those of people and the environment.
3 The qualities and attitudes needed to make this paradigm shift in leadership, mean that those individuals putting themselves forward in such a capacity are committed to listening to all sides in the debate, to weighing up all available evidence, understanding that old ways of decision making that ignore the long term impact of policy on the planet are no longer appropriate and are willing to put the future of humanity ahead of any political ideology or loyalty.
No one ever said this was an easy way forward. However, we fail to commit to such changes at the risk of denying our children and their children the future that should be theirs to enjoy .