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LEADERSHIP: The Real Points of Light

8 minute read
Lance Morrow

The story of American leadership — and its status now — owes something to the sagas of great American families. Read the classic plot as an allegory:

A founding giant — visionary, ruthless perhaps — establishes the fortune. His sons try to consolidate it. As the generations follow one another, the founder’s energy dissipates, like gases flung out from a star. Heirs proliferate. They squabble. Trust funds thin out. Distant cousins go for one another’s throats. By the fourth or fifth generation, they are turning up with guilt complexes about the family name and about the founder’s long-ago crimes of piracy. Some take to drugs, others to environmentalism. Some heir will tithe his trust fund to a cult. An heiress will be arrested in Saks for shoplifting. Some of the cousins will embrace penitential political correctness, the noblesse oblige of overcompensating elites. Everything — power, glory, wealth, dignity — will be ground down at last to the merely human and the occasionally scandalous. The family no longer breeds giants, just threadbare eccentrics and problem cases and a preponderance of ordinary Americans; the family will have evolved, so to speak, into a kind of democracy with a famous name.

Like America.

These are some of the plot elements of American leadership. The complex maturity of the national success brings with it, paradoxically, a diminution and dispersal. Hierarchies flatten out. Presidents of the U.S. and lesser leaders will be ground down, as the great families were. Scandals, like boll weevils (or special prosecutors), will chew into their administrations. Anyone’s 15 minutes of fame is liable to end in a poofing flameout of indignity.

But the story ends to begin again. Each dispersal regroups in a new coalescence. America, for all its disorder, has tremendous energy still. The nation remains programmed to reinvent itself. Fresh leadership somehow still manages to burst up from the chaotic but creative mix. New generations — even of a degenerating family — produce surprises, occasionally geniuses, just as new immigrants still struggle into the country full of fire, hoping to establish their own American sagas.

But these energies are pouring into altered formats. Leadership was once attended by a certain amount of mystery. Today leadership is a subject enveloped not so much by mystique as by mystification. Just what is leadership? How does it work? Publishers churn out books on leadership by the hundreds — mostly treatises on technique, on how to function as an agile and adapting leader in the high-velocity channels of global business.

The premise of the books is basic: the great family model of authority is defunct. The world has changed, and with it the context of leaders and followers — even the conception of what it means to lead.

The end of the cold war — the vanishing of a huge external threat that helped give focus and a context of significance to both leaders and followers — has left Americans in a state of moral disorientation, as if they had lost a defining purpose.

The rise of global competition has cost America its triumphant, unassailable postwar leadership in the world.

Each expansion of democracy and power (for women, for example, or for minorities) in effect rewrites the social contract and thus disturbs the previous arrangement of leadership. Inundations of immigrants confuse the American sense of identity, of what it means to be an American.

Cultural relativism rattles the self-confidence so critical to strong leadership and undermines the authority of established leaders. Challenges from constituencies all over the cultural, sexual and ethical map leave leaders confused not only about their priorities but also about their basic framework of right and wrong. How to accommodate gay rights, for example, to traditional religious beliefs?

Equally destabilizing has been the almost inconceivably rapid democratization of information — the electronic saturation of the world. Once, the leader was the one who knew things and therefore understood what the followers did not: knowledge was power, and following was an act of faith. Now sheer, unexpurgated information accelerates history. It is also hell on mystique. The media help create leaders and then eat them alive — a sort of electronic Aztec sacrifice.

A citizen in a bad mood sees a long devolution from the original giants, a fragmentation of American purpose and identity, a collapse of the nation’s organizing energies. Which, according to this pessimistic reading, is where leadership stands now: at the feuding, fifth-cousin stage.

A citizen in a good mood sees that, all things considered, the fifth cousins are doing well enough for themselves — leading the world, for example, in the information fields that will shape the next century. Reports of the death of American vitality are exaggerated.

Mussolini remarked, “It’s not so much that it is difficult to rule Italy. It’s useless.” Surveying the postelection wreckage, Bill Clinton may be tempted to endorse a similar thought. But the age of Mussolinis has ended (one trusts) in what are now the Western democracies. The age of pre-eminently powerful presidencies may be over as well. The focus of leadership disperses. The real “thousand points of light” in America are the new multiple centers of leadership in business, the sciences and arts, politics, religion, community life and so on.

There is no sense in getting too inspired or sanguine. In the 1990s a cynic’s eye reads a certain rotted sociology in important places — an America disuniting into self-righteous tribalism (gridlocking interest groups; the indignant, victim-singing, litigating, on-the-make cousins, who are fighting over a national patrimony spread too thin).

It is not coincidental that the crisis of leadership arises at a time when a baby boomer sits in the White House and his generation has inherited positions of power throughout the society. In a traditional sense, the baby boomers never learned leadership. They did not inherit self-confidence and instinctive ease as leaders. They taught themselves, in fact, that leadership was suspect, corrupt, sinister and patriarchal. During the 1960s Americans began a decisive journey across the moral border from the old territory of duty to the new land of rights. The old culture of duty encouraged the skills of leadership and assumed its legitimacy. Then, in part because of the disastrous exercise of American “duty” in Vietnam, duty gave way to the very different universe of rights and, after that, of entitlements (which represent the decadence of the American guarantee). John Kennedy’s Inaugural “Ask not” was a perfect expression of the duty ethic. The new culture of rights reversed the flow from individual to society: it said, “Ask what your country can do for you; you are a victim, and everyone owes you.”

The need for leadership in national crisis is always clear. If leadership fails, disaster results: cause and effect. The imperative for leadership in today’s America — a mature democracy in relative peacetime, ramshackling along on cruise control (though with engine knocks, a hole in the muffler and rust on the underbody), not quite dysfunctional — is not nearly so clear and immediate.

And yet problems remain. They have much to do with the world’s problems now (the economy, trade, environment, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy to address immense slaughter and tumult elsewhere), as well as sizable issues at home, moral and otherwise (crime, poverty, drugs, education, abortion, affirmative action).

Old-style leaders were expected to have a vision, a solution, and then lead followers to it. This was, of course, sometimes dangerous: suppose that the leader, endowed with charisma and a gift for keeping the military happy, turns out to be a visionary monster, a Hitler? Such leadership is always a temptation, the path of least resistance, especially during unstable times.

But for the moment, a new story of American families seems to be emerging, along somewhat less traditional leadership lines. The sort of leader needed today is the kind who can assume a reasonably well-educated and informed electorate but help it sort through the inundations of information and opinion (much of it corrupt, self-serving, pseudo-moral) toward solutions. Americans need leaders who will not so much enforce a vision (though visions remain indispensable) as lead people to understand the problems they face together and the costs and effort necessary to solve them — the changes in behavior and attitude sometimes, the sacrifices and above all the need to think and adapt. The key to leadership now is to get Americans to act in concert and take responsibility for the courses that they have set for themselves.

The energy and the real light sources — the new leaders — are there. The job for Americans — after passing through a stage of disunion and redefinition — is to try to find their way toward common ground again. Enough of the Pluribus, for the moment; a little more of the Unum.

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