The End of Leadership

Many of today’s leaders aren’t. So what are they?


Here’s a tiny question.

What happened to this generation of leaders?

Climate change, financial crisis, inequality, debt, stagnation, robo-dystopia…a nearly endless, panic-attack inducing list of Really Major Effing Global Issues Threatening the Ongoing Survival and Prosperity of Humankind…and they mostly seem to be slumped over snoring at the wheel…when they’re not busy clapping each other on the back steering us dead-on into the icebergs.

In this little essay, I want to advance a small thesis. Many of today’s leaders aren’t worthy of the word. Because they are not leaders at all. So what are they?

Let me explain, with a simple example.

There is no good reason for Wolfgang Schauble and Angela Merkel to force, as they are surely doing, Greece to exit the euro. None. Zero. Zilch. Nearly every serious economist in the world agrees that it will cost Germany far more than the relative pittance Greece owes the EU (50 billion euros, or one third of one percent of EU GDP).

There is no good reason for David Cameron and George Osborne to be inflicting 15 years of austerity on an already-depressed UK. Zero. Zilch. None. It is a society in which real living standards are stagnating, inequality is spiralling, and the average person’s future is ever more uncertain. No good reason at all for them to be demolishing the BBC (the world’s finest broadcaster), the NHS (the world’s best healthcare system), and all the UK’s other great historical public institutions. Why not? The UK’s deficit rose in the first place only because of bank bailouts, and even the IMF has both renounced austerity and agreed that advanced economies can not just sustain, but probably need, a deficit to operate at optimal levels of productivity.

I could repeat these stories with reference to politicians around the globe. In Canada, Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and, of course, the USA — where an entire generation of conservative politicians proclaims they “do not believe in” the incontrovertible scientific fact of climate change. Here is the issue: there is simply no support — whether economic, ethical, or moral; whether scientific, rational, or humanistic — for most of their policies, stances, perspectives.

So what gives? What happened to this generation of leaders?

There is something very different about many of today’s so-called leaders. And it is not merely that we, or they, are the helpless victims of “late capitalism”, or any other number of modish buzzwords, for, like every kind of buzzword, that sophomoric grad-school 101 level non-explanation does not illuminate much at all, except perhaps our own outmoded beliefs.

It is that they are demagogues. Let’s review what “demagogue” actually means. Here’s a decent definition:

“a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.”

Let me explain why that’s important, using the example of the 80s. A generation of conservative politicians then — Thatcher, Reagan — and the like — ripped up and rewrote social contracts wholesale.

So what is the difference between them — and the Merkels and Schauebles, Osbornes and Camerons, Jindals and Jebs, of today? A very great one indeed. There was great intellectual and perhaps moral support for the decisions the leaders of yesterday — in the age of modernity — took. Here’s a simple example. We may disagree now over trickle-down economics, since prosperity hasn’t trickled down. But at the time there was at least a reasoned position in support of it, built on a consensus amongst thinkers. You may think of the Laffer Curve as a simple illustration: it may have been proven largely wrong now, but at least there was an effort to produce a reason to slash public services then.

The neo-demagogues of meta-modernity are very different. There is no serious intellectual, moral, or ethical support for their decisions at all. There’s not a serious economist left in the world who agrees with their economic policies; political scientist with their social policies; etcetera. As a simple moral measure of how far today’s not-quite-leaders have slunk, consider: even the Pope—in his much celebrated Laudato Si — has challenged them to rise to today’s great challenges.

Demaogues are irrational, insensible, not beyond reason — but scurrying in the abyss deep below it. They are simply, as the definition simply says, “arousing the passions and prejudices of people”. Let’s take immigration as a simple example. David Cameron’s government has literally banned immigration in the UK. But decades of the logic — not to mention evidence — confirm that immigration only benefits advanced economies. So demagogues do not act rationally or sensibly, reasonably or sanely — whether in terms of economics, morality, politics, or anything else that might justifiably be called a system of thought. Why not? They prey on our emotions; they exploit our biases and prejudices; like magicians, they devour our fears and dangle before us our wishes. They are sorcerers of our animal beings. Pumping the bellows of unreason, they stoke the dark fires that burn deep in the human soul.

It’s true: empiricism alone can never guide us in the human world — but still, we must struggle not merely to be prisoners of our biases and prejudices. And that is precisely what demagogues reduce us to. Unthinking servants of our own worst selves. The selves that, instead of thinking, dreaming, wondering, rebelling, defying, creating, loving — are filled with spite, greed, jealousy, fear, and, at last, hate, of the self and the other, of god and man, of life and death alike.

There are many ways in which, in this Age of Fracture, the institution of modernity are decaying, sputtering out, breaking down. But one of the most significant, insidious, and damaging is that they no longer seem to reliably produce leaders — but demagogues. And, in turn, demagogues are, of course, historical bellwethers of decline, stagnation, disintegration.

True leaders lead people to an impossible destination. It does not exist in the world. It exists in being. They lead us towards to our better selves. Those seared, impossibly, defiantly, courageously, with happiness, purpose, meaning. Lives which may swim in the mighty river of grace, and, because they give thanks for the boundless privilege of life, bestow the gift of mercy and love upon each and every fellow traveller they meet. That is the defining characteristic of every leader that history remembers as truly great — whether Mandela, MLK, or FDR; Lennon, Cobain, or Orwell.

Demagogues do not lead us to our better selves. They lead us to the very opposite: our worse selves. They condemn people to become nothing more than twisted, stunted caricatures of who they were meant to be. And by doing so, they diminish what is truly most valuable in the world: human potential.

For the tragedy of the demagogue is this: the demagogue is an anti-leader. He is not merely the absence of leadership. But the opposite. He is not just the drought. He is the locust and the flood. His followers aren’t merely left no better off — but also no worse off. Life’s most valuable creation is what is truly wasted by demagogues. The one thing we may each call our own. Ourselves.

Demagogues reduce us to being empty, twisted, broken husks of the people we should have been. People who, in the act of wasting their days on spite, greed, envy, and anger, fail to develop, grow, become themselves — and do great and mighty, noble and soaring things. That is why history condemns not just demagogues. But also the people who eagerly follow them. For they are prisoners. But they are also jailers. Each of whom holds the key to the cell next door.

I don’t think this is the end of leadership — forever. But I do think that leadership is in deep, serious, and historic trouble today. As both art and science, practice and pursuit, creation and gift. In all these ways, I think that leadership demands abiding, radical reinvention — and further, that reimagining it is going to require coming squarely to terms with the failures and shortcomings that have produced a hollow generation of demagogues with scarcely a single true leader amongst them. And so it is up to each and every one of us who wishes to be a leader to understand precisely why. For we can no longer conveniently leave the necessary, worthy, difficult work of leadership at the doorstep of the boardrooms and backrooms.

Let’s reclaim leadership from the demagogues. Let us remember where leaders truly lead each and every life that walks with them. To lives brimming with purpose, riven with grace, seared with love, overflowing with meaning. That is the truest miracle of all. That, from mere animals, scurrying and clawing at one another in the glittering darkness, we may follow one another to the pure light of our higher selves. For it is the only one life ever needed there to be.

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