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

Or, The Poker Game at the End of the World

I know, I know. Like everyone with a working soul and half a brain cell left, you don’t believe in leaders, leadership, the whole rotten mess of power and privilege raining failure and misfortune down from the top of a broken system underneath which the shivering masses huddle — and that’s before they’re trampled. Good. Neither do I.

After all, it’s hard to make the case for them. Under their watch, a generation of young people got lost, the planet began to melt down, a broken economy got even more broken, middle classes imploded, and societies fractured. So a new class of demagogues is rising across the globe. Why? Because the thing that people want most today is protection from the poor leadership that has failed them and caused all the problems above.

All of which doesn’t sound very wise to me.

So how did we get here? I think the cause lies in Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership, AKA YTL. Let me explain, using a little metaphor I’ll call the Poker Game at the End of the World, to distill five key principles for cultivating wiser leaders.

Wise leaders are creators of human potential — not just traders of it. YTL assumed that the job of a leader was to be something like a horse-trading rug merchant. Let’s begin small to understand it. You’re a corporate chieftain. What’s your job? Amping your stock price. What’s the easiest way to do it? Buying companies whole, seizing “talent” with bonuses, stock options, perks. Not creating much of real value. You’re a politician. What’s your job? Getting your next campaign funded — and paying for it with a bill the lobbyists want passed. You’re trading their money for society’s human potential — which mostly, in such horse-trading, goes to waste.

And so on. The titles vary — CEO, VC, Senator — but the logic that was taught to leaders was the same. A leader is a dealmaker, salesman, horse-trader. A trader of human potential — not a creator of it. Buy low, sell high, bargain hard — mission accomplished.

And yet. A great society depends on people realizing their fullest potential: on becoming great surgeons, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists, thinkers, scholars. But if all that we are doing is trading slightly more efficiently…then we will have to merely offer them the lowest common denominator purchased at the lowest price offered at the lowest wage with the least benefits at the greatest risk to them…whether that is education, healthcare, transportation, safety, security, stability…and so they’re they’re hardly likely to get there.

Let me put that a different way. You’re at a poker game...in a smoke-filled backroom full of hardcore gambling addicts. The stakes are high — and they get higher. Your adversaries throw in their fine watches, their cars, their gold cufflinks. You win.

Does that make you a leader?

Nope. You might have “won”, but everyone else at the table just got bankrupt, desperate, broken. The sum of human potential went precisely nowhere. See the mistake Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership made? When we suppose that leaders are just traders of human potential, that’s the logic we’re employing. Whether or not people are better at winning poker games — games of dominance for markets, political parties, titles, positions, bonuses — is neither necessary nor sufficient to make them leaders, because it does not necessarily make anyone better off, which is what leadership is.

So the first lesson of being a wise leader is this. Leaders aren’t just traders of stuff — especially human potential. They are creators of it. Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership assumed that the right and true job of was to be dealmakers, peddlers, brokers. But when we assume, from the very beginning, that a leader is just a trader of human potential — not a creator of it — how can society’s sum total of human potential ever expand? It can’t — it doesn’t — and that’s why it’s not.

Wise leaders see the consequences of the consequences. Unwise leaders don’t or won’t even see the consequences. So what does it take to create human potential — not just trade it…right into the ground? Wise leaders see the consequences of the consequences of their actions — where poor leaders don’t even see the consequences.

Let me explain.

How did we end up with climate change? Leaders traded cheap growth for pollution. They first ignored the costs of pollution, then pretended they didn’t exist, and then tried to mitigate them with half measures. They didn’t or wouldn’t see the consequences of the consequences — fossil fuels polluting the skies warming the globe which is now an existential threat to society.

How did we end up with a lost generation? Leaders traded prosperity, shifted it around, instead of newly creating more of it — by tilting the playing field of benefits, policies, and opportunities against the young, who couldn’t and often didn’t vote, to the old — who did. They didn’t or wouldn’t see the consequences of the consequences — and now the young are a generation that’s experienced more economic suffering than a great war, whose economic lives are already destroyed (yes, already: they’re on lower trajectories of wealth and income for life).

How did we end up with economic stagnation? Leaders traded middle class jobs for cheap imports. Suddenly, rich economies boomed — for a brief moment. Yet while globalization turned the super rich into the ultra wealthy, because careers were turned into jobs, and jobs destroyed, the middle class didn’t benefit. They didn’t see the consequences of the consequences: if cheap import driven growth wasn’t also balanced with social protection and job growth, the economy would begin to break. And now it has.

And so on. Every single great problem in the world today is a product of leaders failing, by omission or commission, to see the consequences of the consequences. But they should have. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the American middle class was imploding, that young people had few opportunities, or that global temperatures were spiking. The facts were (and are) in plain view.

So the second lesson of being a wise leader is: look long, hard, and carefully at the consequences of the consequences.

Wise leaders are dreamers, not just politicians. Why don’t leaders see the consequences of the consequences — when they should, can, and must?

Again, the answer lies, I believe, in Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership. If we assume that leaders are traders of human potential, not creators of it, what are we going to teach them to spend most of their time, energy, and effort doing? Exactly what traders do: haggling, bickering, squabbling, bidding, hoarding, pushing, extracting.

Thus, when we assume that leaders are just traders of human potential, not creators of it, then we end up with leaders who are essentially politicians. Politicians are deal-makers, horse-traders…my proverbial rug merchants. They’re just traders of policy, legislation, favors, and power. They haggle, bicker, and horse-trade over them. But that’s mostly all they do .Perhaps that’s why the words “leader” and politician” are synonymous these days. But they shouldn’t be. Some politicians are leaders — but rarely, infrequently, and only ever with great difficulty.

Because YTL assumed that leaders were just glorified traders of human potential, it mostly just gave them lessons in being politicians. That’s why most pop-culture “leadership” is largely about influence-seeking, lobbying, persuasion, manipulation, marketing…rhetoric, optics, buzzwords, punchlines. But that’s not really leading people to lives that matter, rich with human possibility.

Remember my imaginary poker game? Imagine that your addiction had told your single-minded task in life was…winning the game. This game. Right now. You’d focus intently on bluffing, blustering, influencing, manipulating, reading, keeping your poker face on, not giving away a tell, making the most of a bad hand, getting the most from a good one.

Those are exactly the same activities that leaders spend most of their time on now, isn’t it? It’s not a coincidence. Just like players in my poker game, they’re focused on maximizing their trades, hands, little deals, now. And just like players in my poker game, they’re also thus not focusing on the consequences of the consequences. Which are: you can lose the game…and go broke overnight…you can play the game…and still not be any richer…or you can even win the game…yet in sum, no one benefits.

So leaders are blind to the consequences of the consequences because as traders of human potential, they’re wasting their time trying to maximize their trades, not to create. But if all your time, effort, and attention is spent on what you can get out of a hand, deal, trade now…you’re probably not looking at the consequences of the consequence then.

Wise leaders aren’t just players at today’s poker game. Their job isn’t, like politicians, merely learning to bluff, haggle, bicker, and persuade. It is much bigger.

Remember my list of great problems created by not seeing the consequences of the consequences? Climate change, inequality, stagnation, a lost generation, and so on? Better leaders have to be better at mobilizing human potential to solve them.

How? They can’t just wave a magic want. They have to dream. They must inspire people. Not just in the cheesy self help sense of a daily affirmation. In a truer sense: they must animate galvanize, and embolden precisely the people whose hearts and spirits have been broken by a world falling down. With a dream of what a world looks like which doesn’t have such problems. Wise leaders must paint a portrait of a better world. And that portrait can’t just be a utopian fiction, that a six year old wouldn’t believe. Even if it’s improbable, it must be plausible, possible, and better.

Go ahead and think about it. Every truly wise leader in history has been a dreamer before and more than they’ve been a pragmatist. From Gandhi and Mandela’s struggles for improbable justice, to Lincoln’s dream of freedom for all, to JFK’s moonshot, to Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web.

So wise leaders aren’t just politicians. They are dreamers. Because they know: politicians might get the deal done, the treaty signed, the bill passed. So what? The job of a leader is making sure all that is less than worthless, just human potential that’s wasted, unless it means something. Until and unless it truly enhances and benefits human lives.

Wise leaders are idealists, not just pragmatists. I know. You object. The idea that wise leaders are dreamers (!!!) (WTF) (!!!) goes against everything you’ve ever been told about leadership. And then some.


Look. If everything you’d been taught about leadership was right, then we wouldn’t have a world full of failed leaders. So we must rethink leadership if we’re going to cultivate better ones.

You want to believe that leaders are practical, hard as nails pragmatists. Wrong.

And that’s the last and most profound way in which Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership have let us all down.

Let’s think about it for a moment, without bias and fear. Pragmatists aren’t short on the ground in any state of the world. You or I can hire them by the dozens, whether they’re called consultants, bankers, managers, or executives. I can send an email, and whatever my practical, real-world issue, hey presto! Hire a pragmatist to help me fix it. But what we can’t seem to hire — at any price, for we can’t find them because we don’t know how to create them — is better leaders to lead us places that matter in the first place.

What does all that tell you? Here’s what it tells me. Anyone can be a pragmatist. And so pragmatism can’t be the secret ingredient missing from leadership.

Instead, I think what’s missing is the very opposite: idealism.

Intuitively, you probably react strongly — and emotionally — against this idea. It’s hard for us to accept — because it flies in the face of what we’ve been relentlessly conditioned to think. But it’s simple enough if you think about it. We can’t be wise if we’re only thinking of the here and now. If that’s all we do, if we’re only pragmatic, then we will also probably be myopic, narrow-minded, short-termist, egocentric.

To truly be wise, we must ever struggle for the possibility of better. And that is exactly what idealism compels us to do. So pragmatism often dooms us to be unwise, while idealism is a necessary precondition of wisdom. It’s telling of how deeply flawed our theories of leadership are that we find that simple relationship to be counterintuitive, puzzling, difficult to stomach. Yet it is idealism — not pragmatism — makes leaders wise.

Let’s think about it further.

Today’s leaders are expert pragmatists. Whatever the task is…they’ll get it done. They might have to obstruct governments, buy off entire societies, build wholesale lobbying outfits, bombard whole countries with endless marketing campaigns. They’ll get it done. Pragmatism’s a skill that we’ve mastered. It’s something not just that we know how to do — but that we know how to reliably and cheaply teach, produce, and induce.

But it’s also not worth much without idealism. Because while this generation of leaders is expert pragmatists, deal-makers, horse-traders, negotiators, all of that is failing to matter. It’s simply not adding up to much. People’s lives aren’t really improving.

Because Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership assumed that leaders were just traders of human potential, a generation of leaders ended up being die-hard pragmatists. But now they’re something like crazed, broken robots: they’re wheeling and dealing endlessly…but none of the deals have a point. When it comes to pragmatism and idealism…it’s blindingly clear that idealism’s the skill that’s in short supply…desperately more needed…and thus worth vastly more.

And that’s why wise leaders are idealists. They cant merely be fixers trying to put back together the shattered parts of broken world. They lead people to places that matter. They inspire and galvanize people with great dreams. And so they cannot just be pragmatic. They must be fiercely, uncompromisingly idealistic. How else are they to have those dreams? How else are they to stand up for them? How else are those dreams to mean anything? Those dreams must be founded upon great ideals — justice, truth, beauty, integrity, prosperity.

Let’s use a simple example that everyone knows. What made the Founding Fathers great wasn’t just that they ratified history’s first Constitution. But that they imagined and created it. Ratification was a political process. There were scores of politicians around the world at exactly that time who had the same skills — horse trading, negotiation, compromise — to get that done. But only the Founding Fathers, of all the leaders in the world at that moment, had the unfettered idealism to come up with the then-seemingly impossible society it envisioned. It wasn’t pragmatism that made America history’s most improbable success — but the hopelessly naive and historically unprecedented idealism of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, Send me your Huddled Masses, We The People.

Remember my poker game? You’re a gambling addict, and you play it every Wednesday night. But your life is going nowhere fast. So what’s more important: being a pragmatist enough to win it slightly better — or being idealistic enough to dream of a life where you don’t have to? Perhaps you see my point. Leaders aren’t just playing poker games. They must create the great institutions of tomorrow — whether constitutions, countries, companies. And you simply can’t do that without an unhealthy, downright dangerous dose of idealism.

I’ve written too much. So let’s wrap it up here.

Wise leaders are creators of human potential — not just traders of it. And to create human potential, we must do three things. See the consequences of the consequences. Dream great and noble dreams. And not just be pragmatic, but be hopelessly idealistic.

It’s simple enough when you think about it. A leader isn’t just a trader. He or she is something greater: a person who leads people to their fullest potential. A trader may be shrewd, clever, cunning. But a truly wise leader, especially the kind of leaders in the troubled world desperately needs today, must be foolish enough to be a keeper of something greater: the impossible, defiant, necessary promise of a better one. Because that is the way that those worlds ever come to be.

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March 2016