Why the World Needs Worthier Leaders (And How to Be One)

There’s a new kind of anti-leader rising. Not just a monster. But a maker of them.

Across the globe, a new breed of would-be leader is rising. They are extremists and fanatics. They stoke people’s passions, and inflame people’s anger into rage.

I call this generation of anti-leaders monster-makers. They are rising because people want protection from the problems that failed leaders have left to boil over. Many call them demagogues. I will call them in this short essay monster-makers, though, because I think it illustrates much more clearly what they really do — and thus, what their true danger is.

They make monsters in two ways. In promising to protect us from imaginary monsters, they make real monsters of us. And having become monsters, hungry to prey upon each other, we can no longer uphold all that we truly hold dear, whether our societies, our futures, or ourselves. And all that is the opposite of probably the highest quality of leadership — worthiness, accomplishing things which truly matter the most.

Let’s take that step by step.

The global order is in ruins. The world is — and its great systems are — deeply broken. The global economy is stagnating. Societies are fracturing. Inequality is skyrocketing. The young are dispossessed. The planet is melting. And so on. These problems are not natural calamities. They are each and every one failures of leadership.

A broken world is a frightening place. It is not yesterday’s stable, secure, bountiful walled garden. The world was no Garden of Eden yesterday, to be sure. But it did offer the promise of ever ascendant prosperity. That was the fundamental component of the post war dream, whether that dream was American, European, or Asian. But that dream is in tatters.

It’s easy to imagine monsters slithering and crawling out of the cracks of a broken world. Who knows what might attack next? A financial crisis, a sudden economic recession, failure in the rule of law, and so on.

And so we’re easy targets.

The monster makers conjure monsters, oozing and crawling from every crack of this broken world. Sometimes, those monsters are Mexicans. Sometimes, they are Muslims. Sometimes, they are young people, old people, gay people, poor people. Whomever they are, the monster maker says: “These aren’t people. Not really. They’re monsters. Do you want to know who took your bread, your money, your future? Why, they did! The monsters! See how hungry they are?”.

That great leap of illogic sets up an inexorable and terrible logic. What is the monster maker’s Great Overarching Solution to a broken world? He points at the monsters, and says: “they are not people anyways! They are monsters, who are the source of your suffering! So let us expel, eliminate, exterminate them!”.

And so, already frightened, our fear now terror, our anger now rage, our frustration boiling over into vengeance, we do. Exactly what the monster maker says. We begin unpersoning people. We use the rule of law, cultural mores, social institutions — to begin excluding, objectifying, and expelling them. We are dehumanizing them — not metaphorically, but literally, actually. We take the legal, social, cultural, and economic basis of their personhood. The social pie is shrinking, and now we have found a solution. We can simply unperson people, and thus have a bigger slice of a shrinking pie for ourselves.

But it is not a very good solution to the problem of stagnation. Why? Perhaps you see the problem already. We will have to keep unpersoning people for our strategy to work. The pie is shrinking, the real economy stagnating — and so to have a bigger slice, we will simply have to take more from others. Will we do it? What have we become if we do? How far will we go? Will we unperson society right down to our neighbors, friends, and family?

In seeking to vengefully rid ourselves of the imaginary monsters we see lurking in the cracks of a broken world, we become the very monsters we despise.

The meteoric rise of monster-makers across the globe in the early twenty first century tells us this much: we are already in danger of becoming monsters. We are beginning to prey on one another for prosperity, subsistence, existence. We are starting to consume our very own freedom, dignity, and prosperity. And that is how we hope to sustain our societies. Or what is left of them, at any rate. And yet: our failed leaders don’t seem able to lead out of the maze.

And all that brings me to the final characteristic of a leader fit for a troubled twenty first century: being a worthy leader. Leaders are only worthy if and when they prevent, stop, and reverse the vicious cycle above. When they prevent the rise of monster-makers, stop societies from becoming predatorily ecosystems, reverse the harm monster-makers have already done.

I’ve taken you through many lessons of leadership. Great leaders expand the sum total of freedom, justice, and prosperity in a society. True leaders, with humility, honesty, and vision, create great new dreams for a society. Effective leaders impact people’s well being. Worthy leaders connect all these dots. And by doing so, they ensure that monster-makers do not turn societies into gleaming jungles where desperate animals hunt one another by moonlight.

Let me put that to you another way.

In each and every one of us, there are lower and higher selves. Our lower selves are the ones that cynical, bitter, resigned, angry, Bitter irony is mask for searing resentment which has broken one’s dreams. Detached cynicism is a mask for the fear of having expectations in a world that constantly thwarts them. Does that sound like a portrait of today to you?

The greatest wish of our lesser selves is this: to hope to drag others down. Just as a falling world has dragged us down. Because that way at least we’re level. Our egos, fragile and needy, remain satisfied, secure, relieved. At least we’re not at the bottom of the heap, we tell ourselves. But if every person in society is ruled by the lower self, seeking to drag the next down, then the simple truth is that the possibility of human peace, prosperity, and civilization are destroyed. Not from without — but from within.

Unworthy leaders — those who are oft called demagogues, extremists, fanatics — exploit and manipulate the lower self. They prey on people’s fear, anger, resentment, frustration. They turn it against their neighbors, countrymen, peers. They turn good people into monsters, whose lives are centred on dragging others down. And thus, human potential — and its great arks, societies, economies, democracies — are decline, fall, and crumble.

Worthy leaders bring forth people’s higher selves. There is a higher self in each of us. It isn’t the self that’s bitter, cynical, angry, resigned, resentful. Nor is it the self that’s merely happy, pleased, gratified. It’s the self that’s persevering, benevolent, wise, kind, defiant, creative, loving. Even when threatened, thwarted, denied. You can think of the highest self simply as the person that each and every one of us was meant to become — not by the fates, but by our humanity. The higher self can think more clearly, feel more intensely, reason more wisely, and know more deeply than the lower self — and thus it’s capable of higher accomplishments. Do you think Picasso painted great masterpieces or Einstein discovered great equations out of anger, fear, and resignation?

Because it is capable of the greatest accomplishments, ideas, and efforts, the highest self is also the one which is the most capable of fulfillment. Think about it this way: the lower self spends its life angry, resentful, bitter. Does that sound like a fulfilled life to you? I didn’t think so.

It’s no small task to bring forth that higher self. Many of us spend a lifetime in therapy, with self-help books, in meditation, seeking it. Yet my point obviously isn’t that leaders should be therapists, self-help authors, or yoga instructors. It is that leaders must create the social, economic, and political conditions for those higher selves to emerge — and then guide, nurture, and lead people towards them. I’ve already told you how: by being true, great, and effective leaders.

When we can cultivate all three of those characteristics together, then we can do three things that today’s failed leaders can’t. We can demonstrate higher selves in ourselves, that inspire, catalyze, and exemplify to others. We can create organizations, whether they are societies, corporations, our cities, in which human potential has the means, motive, and opportunity to flourish. And we can thus expand the sum total of human potential that benefits all.

Yesterday’s theories of leadership failed almost entirely at evoking people’s higher selves. Why? The reason’s subtle, so think about it with me carefully. When they made humanistic distinctions as I’ve made above, also treated them egotistically. When they instructed leaders in the higher self, they also simply assumed that the job of a leader was to develop that self, and its qualities, for themselves.

But that idea didn’t work. Why not? It couldn’t. Because evoking the higher self contains a great catch-22 — or miracle, depending on how you see it. We can’t evoke our own higher self merely by grasping for it. It is only sparked in the elevation of others. The higher self is evoked only when we lift others up — not just try to lift ourselves up, and definitely not when we try to drag others down.

Result? Because yesterday’s leadership theories were more focused with power, domination, and control than with elevating other people’s lives, no one’s higher self ever really got developed very much — especially not the leaders who practiced them. Go ahead and take a hard look if you don’t believe me. While leaders today might in fact be experts at power, domination, and privilege, they don’t seem to fundamentally deficient, crippled, stunted when it comes to the fundamental qualities of humanity.

So let me say it again. The higher self is sparked, cultivated, and developed only by lifting others up. And the job of a worthy leader is bringing forth that higher self in every person that they lead. Thus, a virtuous circle is set in motion — instead of the vicious cycle of predator eating predator.

That’s all human civilization, at its truest, really is. We can overcomplicate the issue by adding all kinds of caveats about rationality and calculation, incentives and bad actors, but the simple fact is that the highest self is above our overmathematized models of robo-people. We don’t find meaning in a loved one’s face because our brains are calculating a payoff algorithm — but because time stretches into infinity, while our hearts beat a little bit faster. We are one. We have led one another to our highest selves.

Leadership is the highest human art. And being a worthy leader, enabling others to be great, effective, and true leaders, is the pinnacle of leadership. Many of us won’t get all the way there. And that’s OK. What counts is that we see the mountain, and attempt the climb.

I think that evoking people’s highest selves, is, in the long run, in world beset not by existential threats to economies, societies, and polities, like climate change, inequality, and stagnation, the best kind of insurance there is. It’s like a guarantee against the rise of the monster-makers. Perhaps not an iron-clad one — but probably the best one that we’re capable of.

I want to conclude this essay, and this book, by discussing for a moment just how profound and ever present the threat of the monster-makers really is. Because while you and I both know it exists, we don’t often spend much time thinking about it clearly. Our fear and anxiety, dread and despair, get in the way.

Let us put all those to one side, and together, stare just for a moment into the abyss.

The obvious truth is that by listening to the call of the monster-makers, by becoming monsters ourselves, we are simply eating our own. Society is not truly growing, expanding, developing. It is merely eating itself from the inside out.

But that is the least of our worries. The truest threat of the monster-makers isn’t external — but internal.

When we become monsters, we are also eating ourselves from within. When the monster-makers make monsters of us, we lose our higher powers. We no longer imagine, dare, rebel, create, defy, build, love, grow. We merely mutely obey, consume, hate, plunder. And thus we lose the possibility of meaning, happiness, and purpose in our lives. So what I really mean by monster-makers making monsters of us is that our lower selves overwhelm, suffocate, and ruin our higher selves — and our human potential is lost not just to us, but by us.

Do you think I overstate my case? Go ahead and think it through. How many authoritarian societies in history have been full of happy, creative, productive, kind, loving people?

When we become little monsters and dehumanize them, to tear away their bread, and take it for ourselves, then the catch is this. By doing so, we also dehumanize ourselves. Human can’t dehumanize others without also dehumanizing themselves. So we lose the best in us — our highest and noblest selves. For we can no more become monsters and stay human than we can stay human and turn a blind eye to monsters.

But that is precisely what we hope to do, isn’t it? To ignore the problem of the monster-makers, and wish that it would just go away? But all that only leaves us more anxious, worried, frightened, depressed, paralyzed.

Let us then face it all. The broken world, the imaginary monsters slithering from its cracks, the monster-makers conjuring them — and the monsters that we will become should we heed their call.

Instead of the truer, deeper, eternal call within us all. That resounds, lasts, endures. It is the call not just of our prosperity — but of our possibility. And that, in the end, is all we truly have. Our freedom, our grace, our rebellion. Not just against the gods, nor against destiny. But against the monsters that we will surely become if we do not reach ever upwards towards our greatest possibility.

Each and everyone one of us was put here to be a leader. Even — especially — you.

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March 2016