A Google search with the words “crisis of leadership” is revealing. It returns 639,000 hits for books, 4.4 million news stories and about 1.1 million videos. Hundreds of thousands of images of consequential historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Lincoln and Martin Luther king pop up.
As a social construct, leadership is as much obfuscated and illuminated by scholars in management, political science and social theory. Eugene E. Jennings in his book An Anatomy of Leadership suggests that leadership is an “omnibus term” deployed without discrimination to roles as varied as sports coach, politician, committee chairperson, corporate executive, and school headmaster.
Today we bemoan failure of leadership in every sector, and especially in the government, media, NGOs – both local and international – business, political parties, multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations.
I will focus on political leadership. On the one hand rising inequality and poverty, terrorism, global climate crisis and immigration have created near unanimous mistrust of government and political leaders. On the other hand increasing change, complexity and uncertainty in an intensely globalized world have converged to produce an unprecedented demand for exemplary political leadership at local, regional and global scales.
Traditionally, leadership denotes a state or position of influence. Understanding political leadership, its failure or success, must take cognizance of the fact that leadership is a relationship between two parties, the leader or the persons exerting influence and the persons influenced.
More importantly, a functional relationship exists between the leader and the follower. Some early scholars have characterized the relationship as a structured, institutionalized pattern of authority and subservience. This was certainly true in imperial Europe, in the dark ages of colonialism and dictatorship in much of the developing world.
However the construct of authority and subservience remains the defining model of leadership. Globally, political leaders have failed to recognize that leadership must be about influence and less about power or authority. In a republic as opposed to a monarchy or a colony, we have citizens and representatives, not subjects and potentates. Citizens are the custodians of sovereign power, which they donate to elected representative – political leaders.
In my view at the heart of the crisis of leadership is the fact that political leaders are ossified in the imperial, colonial era. Even in large democracies like the US we see spectacular displays of envy of autocracy by President Donald Trump, who has great admiration for Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership.
The context of political leadership has changed, and radically so. For example Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Accord is now seen as temporary absence of the US as State Party. Nearly 100 cities, five stares, six more to join and hundreds of leading firms have vowed to unite behind the Paris Accord.
Those who sit at the zenith of political organizations must uphold the ideals of democracy, adapt and innovate to meet the demands of a dynamic, pluralistic, globalized and multipolar world.