How Not to Be a Leader

Leaders lately aren’t. Here are their four top mistakes.

Whether it’s the rise of the extreme right in Europe, Donald Trump’s ascent in the US, Canada’s stunning plunge into fringe politics, the world is awash in a new political phenomenon: a tsunami of vocal, angry extremism, where once placid waters calmly shimmered. Not extreme enough for you? In one of the world’s most advanced societies, unemployed kids, of which there are too many, are going to have to go…not to school, college, or even community service…but to boot camp.


In this short essay, I want to offer a lens through which to see this phenomenon. A few years ago, there was a huge leadership deficit in the world. No one, it seemed, was steering the ship. And perhaps you thought things couldn’t get worse. But today things are different: there’s not a deficit of leadership anymore. There is a surplus of bad leadership. Too many angry, blind pilots pointing ships…straight into the icebergs. Leadership, it appears, has fallen into a deep abyss. From which it must climb out, if it is to regain its place in the world again.

And before I begin let me note. This isn’t an essay I particularly want to write. But the truth is that there are too few voices speaking too few simple truths about this unsettling — and profoundly self-destructive — phenomenon.

Let us, then, put our prejudices aside, and examine these new leaders. So we may see what they stand for — and whether it is worth believing in. What is striking — and immediately obvious — is that they share four positions in common; and that is what distinguishes them as a phenomenon, a class, a category, a larger movement.

Fatalism. Donald Trump wants to deport even the innocent children of undocumented immigrants — and build a Great Wall of America. David Cameron has literally shut down immigration to the UK. In Australia, refugees (who are innocent of any crime) are detained in offshore prisons where they are allegedly waterboarded. What the neo-demagogues share, above all, is an absurd answer to the great question of social inclusion: none. The evidence, of course, suggests squarely that immigration (among other kinds of inclusion) is a great benefit to society. But the demagogue exploits people’s selfishness in an age of stagnation — why should the immigrant have any, when I suddenly have barely enough?

The demagogue exploits people’s selfishness because his is a world of zero-sum thinking. If I have more, you must have less. Hence, it is “logical”, the demagogues claims to wish everyone ill. Immigrants, the disabled, the poor, the vulnerable — when all these people have more, they are taking bread from your mouth!! That is the central claim of the demagogue, and it is present everywhere in their economic policies — which are simply largely excuses to beggar everyone’s neighbor. Hence, the demagogue proposes no real social policies at all — only cutting society…all the way to zero. Hence, Cameron in the UK is eviscerating the NHS, BBC, and more; Canada and Australia, too, are beginning to dismantle their great public institutions. After all, that is the logical endpoint of beggar-thy-neighbor: there are no public goods worth investing in at all.

But that is not what prosperity is at all: any reasoned understanding of it begins with the notion that if I am to have less for you to have more, then no one is better off in the first place; we have merely changed places. True prosperity is beyond the demagogue’s logic entirely: it is a state where both you and I benefit from one another’s existence, despite what it costs us. That may seem a subtle point. But it is the starting point for the great enterprise known as the social contract — for without a shared prosperity, there is no reason for citizens to bother with one another at all. To simplify: the demagogue tells us that social contracts are impediments in the way of prosperity — not its foundations and arches. And so he reduces the great accomplishments of history to rubble.

There’s a simpler way to put the zero-sum assumption of the demagogue: fatalism. It is a belief that the immigrant, the weak, the vulnerable — these cannot benefit the strong, the sure, those who “belong”; they simply do not have the potential to. It is a fatalistic disbelief in human potential itself. And you can’t be much of a leader if you don’t believe in human potential.

Scapegoating. You will note that the true cause of economic stagnation is not addressed by the demagogue at all. It wasn’t immigrants, the poor, or the vulnerable that caused a financial crisis. So who was it? Duh. It was bankers — who malinvested in toxic assets, and then flogged them, for a double profit, right back to the state, which promptly then had a crisis because it’s balance sheet suddenly went to hell. It’s so painfully stupid I have to say it again: the economy melted down because of badly run banks, not (of all people) immigrants — and frankly, if you believe anything but, you are a rube, a sucker, a mark. You think your plumber somehow flushed ten trillion dollars down the toilet?

Let me put it plainly. To persecute immigrants and the poor for a weak economy instead of bankers is like blaming your pet kitten for terrorism. That is precisely what neo-demagogues are doing when they blame immigrants (and other vulnerable groups) for weak economies: scapegoating them.

Nowhere — in not a single advanced economy — do we see demagogues calling for bankers to be prosecuted and brought to justice for ruining the economy — not a single modern day demagogue has called for it. But they are relentless, and extreme, in their persecution of people that didn’t ruin it. The interesting question is: why? It isn’t just that banks are the demagogue’s friend. Rather, it is because demagogues do not understand how the economy works at all. They equate money with wealth — and so they do not understand that wealth is what prosperity is actually composed of, and money is merely paper that helps us distribute it; therefore, money must be hoarded, concentrated, and denied to those who haven’t “earned” it — instead of distributed widely, precisely so society can continue to prosper. Real leaders don’t scapegoat: they do precisely the opposite — they celebrate (and reward) those who have truly bettered us.

Timidity. You may think that demogagues, angry and loud as they are, are reckless firebrands. But the truth is that they are timid, cowering, panicked things. Let me explain.

Because the demagogue believes that money is wealth, the next plank in his plan for society is to “eliminate the deficit”. But this is a negative real interest rate world. Little could be more mind-bendingly absurd. It’s so illogical I struggle to find a metaphor. Restoring economic health by cutting the deficit in a negative interest rate world is like trying not to have sex in order to reproduce.

Think about it. There are mountains of capital moving around the globe in desperate search of investment opportunities (hence, the super rich stashing money in London and NYC real estate). There has rarely been a better time for governments to invest, and invest with a vengeance, in modern history. Societies should be building gleaming new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges…giving free money to students…raising the salaries of teachers and other public employees…everything and anything under the sun that society so visibly needs.

Let me make the logic crystal clear. If I offered to lend you a million dollars, at a negative interest rate of ten percent a year, for 100 years, would you accept? You’d be one of history’s great fools not to. You’d have to pay me back…zero; in fact, I’d owe you money. You could simply invest a market index, or even just hold cash, and you’d make free money. Your timidity would lead you to miss a life-changing opportunity.

But that is exactly what demagogues don’t want governments to do. They believe, timidly — and have convinced foolish people — that nations are “going broke”; that they cannot “afford to” invest in public goods, like schools, hospitals, roads, or clean air and water. Why? Not just because they are economic illiterates — but because they are devoted to their own ignorance. They fetishize the deficit like a wrathful god to be ritualistically appeased with human sacrifice. But real leaders don’t timidly, fearfully obey empty commandments—they are bold and wise enough to revolt. Especially against hollow gods, whether made of stone or of numbers, in the promise of each life’s possibility to grow and mature.

Dehumanization. It’s possible, of course, for demagoguery to come from either left or right. But what is characteristic of neo-demagogues today is that they are products of the extreme right. Why? Because, in the wake of financial crisis, in the teeth of economic stagnation, people are overwhelmed by anxieties and fears that have left them angry, worried, and confused. How will my children prosper? How will I retire? Who will take care of me in my old age? How will we afford to maintain the lifestyle to which we are accustomed?

The demagogue’s choice is to provide people answers which exploit their prejudices and biases, and prey on their ignorance and foolishness. Demagogues, in short, bring out the worst in people. And that is why they are very effective politicians. They may arouse the passions of people. But they do so in the same that a drug dealer might. They awaken people’s appetites for self-destruction and hate — not for creation, nobility, and greatness.

Let me explain.

The demagogue justifies his claims with a very simple appeal. If we’d exclude the weak, pay off the bills, and punish the undeserving, the demagogue claims, everyone else could have a life worth living. And that life is precisely the same for all the neo-demagogues of meta-modernity. It is a dream of hyperrational individualistic materialism: a McMansion, a fleet of cars, and gadgets for every family. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing.

But there’s not much right with it, either. The simple truth is that is the least a great society should aspire to. More than mere material prosperity, a society that wishes to be truly great must encourage it’s people to be great. Great thinkers, artists, healers, teachers, leaders, creators, dreamers, builders. Not just grinning brain-dead zombie-consumers sucking down the dregs of post-capitalist prosperity left at the bottom of the cup through a broken straw of corrupt institutions and wrecked social contracts. But that is precisely what the neo-demagogues of meta-modernity want us to be.

That is their true gleaming flaw. Not merely that they call forth the worst in us. But that they do not do justice to the best in us. For the best that they want for us is merely the worst in us…not to be great, noble, wondrous people, who do amazing and remarkable things…but merely to be monsters with insatiable appetites. Not beings, who, though born in sin, defiantly ever hold the possibility of grace in our broken hearts.

That is the tragedy of the demagogues. They ask us to hate. But they do not know that we must, if we are to live fully, love. Not merely in the empty technological consumerist sense — a tap, a swipe, a date, and a hangover. But in the true and timeless sense. We must brim over with mercy if we are to know grace. We must overflow with humility if we are to know meaning. We must burst open our selves if we are to know their place in creation. It is not enough for us to be consumers, bullies, predators, smiling monsters denouncing our neighbors, if we are to be the people we were meant to be. We must be dreamers, rebels, renegades, heretics, outlaws. Everything, in short, that the demagogues do not want us to be.

That, of course, is our great challenge. To be the very leaders that a broken, hunted, anxious world is so desperately missing.

August 2015

Photo credit.

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