Leaders. Do we need them?
The 5 attributes of good leadership
Not rhetoric, but specifically defined and achievable goals. Culture Wars are not vision. They're lazy.
Everyone makes mistakes. A leader acknowledges them and builds from them. A coward runs from them.
A true leader must never lie. Ever. If you use deceit for power, your power is inherently corrupt. If you cannot stand by your own character, what sort of leader are you?
No one should put themselves forth for leadership. A leader rises through service to the nation. A leader without service to the nation will be as self-serving in leadership as they have been in life.
Simply put, bragging is the most unattractive human trait. In America, we've had a healthy wariness of the silver-tonged hustler, the snake-oil salesperson, but we litter our history with men who have used the techniques of sales to win votes. History judges people like this harshly and they fade quickly.
So, leaders. What is their purpose? Who are these people? Do they help or hurt? Are they actually leading? Have we gone past the need for leaders? Big rally? Chants? Flags? Merch? Or do we just need somebody to organize the garbage being picked up?
I've outlined what I believe are the 5 attributes of leadership as I see them, but looking at the current landscape of American leadership, I have to ask:
Who are these guys?
I grew up in a world of leaders. We're going to the Moon type leaders. Nowadays, we seem to have lost the leadership plot. Or maybe worse, as far as leaders go, with the advances in cultural transparency, the king is truly walking naked through the world. For some people, a leader is someone who is in charge and gives orders. Great. I think some people like to follow orders. Not me. But many people. But there is a shift. More people are like me. More people just fold their arms and smirk at the avalanche of leader BS.
Do you think Putin expected the Ukrainians to resist his great leadership? That guy is caught up in a 20th century KGB head. He expects his poisonous intimidation to cow folks to anoint him a great leader. The Ukrainians made up their own minds. They took out their cell phones. They went on Twitter.
20th century leadership relies on a certain projection of loud PA music and waving flags and blood-thirsty speeches, but Putin wandered into a rhetorical box canyon. Started mumbling about Nazis like a Hollywood movie villain from the 50s. Putin is a prime evidence of how leadership has changed. People are just not buying it like they used to.
This guy Trump is an abysmal failure of leadership. He brought rear-view mirror vision to the table. Thanks, Don, but we know where we've been. We don't need you to tell us. And honestly, we don't need you to stumble in tongue-tied glory to tell us where we're going, because it's obvious from looking at your golf tan, you don’t care.
How about Lindsey Graham? Sitting in the Senate oozing old school plantation, overseer with vengeance. Don't hold your breath waiting for ideas on inflation, or immigration, or the price of apples. Threats don't really fly in a world heading for ‘unlivability.’ I get Lindsey Graham has opinions. We all do. But on what dying planet does the opinion of a guy from South Carolina count for more than anybody else's opinion? Opinions are not leadership.
Do you know the one leader who looks to me like a leader? I'm surprised to say it, but I really believe it. Pete Buttigieg. While Lindsay seethes, Pete fixes bridges, because the bottom line is we need the bridge more than we need one man's opinion of the bridges.
What is a leader?
There's no one definitive answer. We can define a leader as someone who inspires and motivates others to achieve a common goal. We may also see them as someone who is in charge and gives orders. Others may simply see a leader as somebody who can organize people and resources. In America, we define a leader as the guy who can raise the most money. Yesterday, the internet was swooning over the fact Governor DeSantis of Florida had raised $100 million for this election campaign. His war chest makes him a leader.
In fact, DeSantis is careful to plant flags on hills that require no leadership at all, but heated opinion. Real leadership is a problem for a politician with the ambition of DeSantis. Come up with ideas. And then you have to sell them. That creates a track record for people to judge your effectiveness as a leader. And that's a scary thing for politicians. Better to flit from non-issue to non-issue like some kind of Fox fairy.
No masks are not an idea, it's an attitude. Dictating proscribed curriculum for schools is not leadership, it's an attitude. It's a safe way to troll for votes. Try answering the question what are your plans for the dying Everglades? Now that's a minefield for a vote trolling politician.
What make a good leader?
The qualities that make a good leader include charisma, intelligence, decisiveness, integrity, and the ability to inspire others. Leaders also need to communicate their vision and build consensus among those they are leading. Whoops. I used the 'C' word—consensus.
Let's talk about consensus a second. In America, consensus is the bedrock principle of governance. It's why people came here. Where they came from, consensus was whatever the king or pope or dictator said consensus was. You don't like it? Off with your head. But in America we put up a big sign: Opinions Wanted. Free speech, remember that? Everybody has a mouth in America and they're encouraged to use it.
There's a quaint tradition in London, at Marble Arch, an area called Speaker's Corner. It's been there for centuries. The idea was it was the one place in London you could say anything you wanted to say and keep your head. It's actually a pretty cool place. I grew up across the street from it. Speaker's Corner. You hear all sorts of stuff there. Well, America is Speaker's Corner sea to shining sea.
Opinion counts in America, but real leadership listens to all the opinions, and then builds consensus so we can get things done. To do that, you must use the other 'C' word—compromise.
Ah, now we focus on our definition of what makes a good leader. In America, an uncompromising leader is the worse kind of American leadership. To stand in front of the American people and demand loyalty is pretty much as UnAmerican as you can get. That's making America Europe again. We just don't work that way here, and pretending we do is a delusional and dangerous. American is compromise leading to consensus. That's leadership in America. And that's what makes us great and different.
Look at our political landscape. It feels like we're on our way to war. They've been doing that in Europe for centuries. Abysmal tribal leadership leading directly to tanks blowing up schools. That kind of governance is why millions got on boats and came over here. Do we want to make America European again? Heck, Europeans don't want to make Europe European again.
Do we need leaders?
I've always believed the best leaders are mayors, not senators or business executives, but mayors. Mayors have to pick up the trash, plow the roads, plant the trees, fix the benches, manage the cops, keep the subways running on time, keep the sidewalks swept, hand out parking tickets, help people sleeping on the streets, help the shops stay open. Mayors. You want to judge a leader? Check how they did as a mayor.
It's not enough to have an opinion as a mayor. You need to get things done. The real things. Who cares what you 'feel' about things? Why is the garbage piling up in front of my apartment? When are you going to fix the pot hole? If the pot hole doesn't get fixed, we'll find somebody who will fix the pot hole.
It's what I was saying about DeSantis. He'd much rather govern by opinion than fix the pot hole. Whether they filled the pot hole is an exact record of achievement. Did it get filled or didn't it? There's not much debate on the matter.
So yes, we need leaders to manage the snowstorm, but no, we don't need leaders to tell us how they 'feel' about matters. Save that for the memoirs.
In America, we have a crop of leaders without leadership qualities. Kind of a perfect storm. A minority has decided the best way to troll voters is to invent something they call 'culture wars—vague, uncomfortable feelings about things built on a bonfire of opinion. Ignore the pot hole, folks, listen to how I feel about gay marriage, like opinions on gay marriage are going to magically make the pot hole go away.
Opinion leadership we don't need. We have Facebook for that. We have Fox for that. Sorry, Seanlauratucker. Your opinion is just that. Mine is different. Now what are you going to do? I'm the pot hole.
Snake oil salesman never last
DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
What can we do about our leadership problem?
The 5 attributes of poor leadership
Abuse of power
Above the law
Lack of accountability
If a leader says they're not responsible, quietly show them the door out to the Rose Garden. If a leader says I'm the only one who can fix it, buy them a ticket to Moscow. If a leader says the law doesn't apply to me, get some citizens together and form a jury.
We have solutions. There are checks and balances in place, such as having multiple leaders or holding leaders accountable to those they are supposed to be leading. You know what that sounds like? Compromise and consensus.
Madison's system of checks and balances is used in many countries to ensure power isn't concentrated at any one institution. Federalist 51 explained why there should be three branches within our government rather than one king or dictator or party. The truth is, we tie the health of a democracy to the health of the opposition.
In a democracy, strict adherence to ideology is a signpost to corruption.
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If the opposition becomes corrupt, it works for ideology over a pragmatic democratic process, then the democracy rots from the inside out. Ideology has no room for compromise and, in the end, becomes a lethal agent within a democracy. Any politician who steps to the podium and only offers divisive ideological purity and loyalty is an enemy of the republic. We all must be wary of such people.
The concept behind checks and balance seems very old-fashioned in a media landscape built on deception, but what Madison came up with helped solidify its place amongst American politics today because without his arguments, we might have ended up with a system more similar to Europe over the centuries.
Appeasement is the ultimate sign of poor leadership
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The Founders had the courage to strike their own political contract, not asking for help from European despots, or appeasing kings and dictators. Standing equal to kings and superior to fascists once was the essence of American politics, something we've lost as we've embraced a purely transactional culture.
Different nuances of government have different ways of ensuring that power is dispersed and no one leader or institution has too much control. One way they do this is through term limits, which ensures that a leader can only serve for a set period before being replaced. This ensures that there is turnover and fresh ideas, as well as preventing any one person from having too much power. A Senator who sits unopposed in their seat for thirty years will inevitably assume their opinions on things matter more than the traditions of governance, and will impose their opinions on others. The ultimate truth of leadership is that it follows the needs of the people, not the other way around. Rare is the leader humble enough to understand this, and contemporary American leaders have built leadership platforms on the opposite. ‘My opinion is the only opinion that matters.’
In conclusion, yes, we need leaders, but there aren't many on today's political scene. It's impossible to lead in American politics if you must have strict adherence to a narrow ideology in order to succeed. If personal wealth is the cost of entry, it's not American leadership. It’s not American leadership if the leader doesn’t recognize the most blaring difference between America and the rest of the world: We are built on cultural diversity. It’s our super-power.
Our natural diversity is the essence of America
American natural history: Foundation of useful knowledge of the higher animals of North America
We do not demand the loyalty of people; we earn their loyalty. And we work to uphold the traditions of democracy, not undermine them. A great American leader recognizes they are just a point on the continuum, not THE point of the continuum. Ultimately, an American leader knows how to win and lose with humility, respecting the process and the decision of the voters, and putting the traditions of the republic ahead of their personal ambition.
Of course, they filled America today with the opposite, but I am optimistic the forces of democracy and the voice of the majority will choose the better course. The mores of many American leaders are recipes of failure, as proven by history again and again. American democracy is being attacked like never before. From within, the heinous tools of social propaganda and media distortion make it difficult, but not impossible. The battle for democracy never ends, and that is the great lesson of our times.