How to Pick a Leader in a Leaderless Time?

Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
The Startup
Published in
7 min readNov 1, 2020


by Melanie Garson Ph.D. and Shannon Mullen O’Keefe M.A.L.D.

In a world in which everything is growing exponentially around us — faster than we can comprehend — a world in which by next year 20 billion devices could be interconnected globally, where are the leaders that show us a vision to navigate this future?

A leadership thinking that is beyond November 3rd, 2020, or even November 3rd, 2024.

A leadership that offers a vision beyond the tit-for-tat spiral of election rhetoric. Something greater than “I’m not him!”

What do we want from our leadership? How about a story for the future?

Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that people search for something to believe in, he says, “Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories.”

As Harari suggests, people want to join inspiring ‘stories,’ they want to become a part of the narrative that helps them to imagine themselves and their loved ones on a journey to something better.

Who is offering a narrative of the future that we can believe in?

We need our local, national, and global leaders to stand up and speak out about the possibilities they see for our futures to improve. We need them to weave a hopeful and possible narrative that we can grab on to, to pull us up out of the damp and muddy trenches we are in. A narrative that will call a cease to the sniper fire that whizzes and buzzes just over the trenches we lay crouched in now so that we’re not afraid to step out into the open air to see the green pastures of possibility and so that we are not afraid to do our part to help all of us to get there.

Such leaders can help us to imagine what is possible with radical collaboration. What is the radical vision that can help us see what is possible when we are radically — connected — and radically — supportive of one another?

We need visions that will help us know how to set the foundations for and the stepping stones to futures we want to dream about and futures we want to be a part of in 2040, 2050, and beyond.

This does not mean setting aside today’s challenges, including the insidious virus, but, leaders must, in spite of challenges like this, help us to remember that new and better futures are possible. That in the midst of uncertainty there is possibility.

We need leaders who will step out of the valley of polarisation and help us lift our eyes to the possibilities that exist on horizons both near and far.

So, let’s step back and look at the problem of leadership now as if we stand on a mountaintop on a clear day. Standing on this mountaintop — with a little distance to observe things from afar — will allow us to see the needs — and in fact the gaps — of leadership today.

For leadership is in a valley it needs to emerge from.

There are dangers in narrow and narrow-minded narratives.

When people search for an ideology and meaning and find none in the mainstream, they will find comfort in messages that offer a measure of hope. Messages offered by influencers that thrive on division. We don’t need to look far for examples. The current political climate in the United States stands as the most obvious example. Toxic divisions emerging from a narrative that places the reactive satisfaction of individual interests over a considered commitment to long-lasting common interests locally, regionally, and globally.

This year the UN SDG report finds that an estimated 71 million humans are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty, ‘the first rise since 1998.’ The report highlights the disproportionate detrimental impacts of the pandemic on women and children, sharpened income disparities, falling literacy rates — all the indicators of states failing.

Another metric by Gallup suggests that the percentage of adults suffering in the world has grown from 9% in 2007 to 17% now, a record in their tracking. They also found ‘that people are experiencing more anger, sadness, worry, and physical pain.’

The World Bank’s latest poverty estimates point to poverty reduction slowing down. Development in reverse.

These are hallmarks of human security under threat and the despondence of a people caught in an uncomfortable present without guidance to imagine what can be.

The side-effects of policies grounded in short-sighted and narrow narratives devoid of inspiration.

These are the symptoms of a leadership adrift.

It is critical that we do not forget our agency in this process of choosing our leaders. Voting in our democracies matters and it is fundamental and necessary that we participate.

But beyond voting, we have the agency to hope for and demand the best from those who will lead us. We have the agency to demand a narrative that offers genuine vision and imagination as an antidote to the daily fears and malaise.

Visions of tomorrow must be rooted in timeless values.

But, here is the thing. It’s more than just a vision of tomorrow. It needs to be a narrative that we can trust. Trust in leadership prevails when the narrative is tethered in shared values, that is, a moral trust.

Untethered narratives make us feel like we are in Carl Frederickson’s uprooted house, in the movie, ‘UP,’ as it floats away under the uncomfortable guidance of 20, 622 colored balloons.

So we not only should demand a hopeful narrative but a narrative firmly rooted in timeless, universal human values that can bring us together.

But, what should these values be?

Public trust in government, globally, but particularly in the US has been in dramatic decline since the 1950s.

Similar to today, the 1950s was a time when people sought to regain their footing after a time of extreme upheaval, when people sought new meaning in the face of new world order, and rapid technological advance.

To what values did leadership tether their vision as they sought to build a new world?

The inherent dignity of the individual as the basis of democracy.

At this time, Edward R. Murrow, an acclaimed journalist of the time, hosted a radio program called This I Believe, and ‘39-million Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries — anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived.’ At the time, their words were meant to inspire those afflicted by worries of the ‘Cold War, McCarthyism, and radical division.’

In our search to understand the values required to underpin a model of visionary leadership that transcends the narrow outbidding of today’s politics, we initiated a project diving into these essays designed to identify the core values of great leaders.

What was their philosophy of leadership? What gave 39 million listeners hope and fostered trust?

We found narratives that repeatedly linked leadership to tolerance, humility, honesty, a delegation of authority, and moral courage over showmanship, such as that of Edward Toland. Integrity, intelligence, and the infectious nature of inspiring through great purpose lie at the heart of many of the essays. But it is in Edward Sherman’s “Decalogue of Civic Responsibility,” the values that he termed his “ten candles” to light the way instead of bemoaning the darkness, in which we find the basis of what should underpin visionary leadership.

A vision tethered in the recognition of the inherent dignity of the individual as the basis of democracy.

A vision based on the application of the same moral, ethical, social, and economic standards that are axiomatic in family life, to the operation of the larger social units.

A vision rooted in the respect for properly constituted authority in all social areas: home, church, school, community, state, and nation.

A vision that reminds us of the responsibility that rests upon every citizen for active participation in the process of government.

A vision that remembers that the government should be an efficient servant, rather than a master of the people.

A vision committed to seeking out and destroying the power of those who divert and exploit the normal functions of government for selfish ends or personal gains.

A vision that unites people to challenge the influences that deny the principles for which we stand.

These, we believe, are the timeless values that should underpin our leadership narratives. This is the least that we should demand of our leadership.

With an inspiring vision rooted in core values, policies will emerge that are guided by principles that allow us to forge ahead.

Principles that give people a sense of identity, dignity, and stability.

Policy with purpose.


As we continue our exploration of the Murrow archives we will share more of the themes and timeless values of some of our greatest leaders. Our hope is that we can inspire those leaders waiting in the wings to grab hold of them as they start to knit their narratives.



Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
The Startup

A lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas