Think back to October 2020, a few weeks before the US presidential election. According to the polls, the Democrats nominee has the upper hand. In a normal election cycle he would be a shoe in. Instead the media is in a frenzy in case the polls are wrong given that they fooled everyone the last time.
There’s discussion of what would happen if the result is close and contested or the sitting president chose not to leave even if the voters said otherwise. The US is on tenterhooks and the whole world wants to know what is going to happen.
The normally politically lazy Americans would turn out in numbers that would again favour the Democrats, however, it also means the rusted on Trump supporters will be out in force as well.
Then a few of them took over the citadel.
I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a ‘rusted on’ Trump supporter. What thinking makes a person vote for a candidate with no ethics, no morals, no substance, no empathy or sense of fairness and has broken every rule there is and got away with it?
It’s what we used to call back in the day ‘dodgy brothers’, the kind of person you would keep well away from your daughters.
And yet there he is, the sitting President, running a campaign of disruption and division in order to get voted back in again. Relying on that rusted on core to put him back in office. Arguably, despite the impeachment ruling, inciting them to violence and to deny the result of the democratic process.
What is it that allows that to happen? When does humanity wake up and say ‘no, this is not the kind of guy we want to lead us into our future’?
Well the Americans did, just. But the divisions are still there, painful and as rusty as ever.
It could be the power of the fear and loathing that exists in people prepared to back a person who will go against everything rather than build confidence, partnerships and forward thinking. There was a quote just before the election to the effect that there is this man high on steroids and should any foreign jurisdictions be listening, to keep well away lest they spark something that they didn’t want involving red buttons.
More scary than funny.
Leadership gets more than its fair share of posts on this blog.
I think I’ve always assumed that we look towards leadership that is progressive and inspires confidence. Leaders pull people together so we can become more than the sum of the parts.
Such individuals need talent, a lot of energy, commitment, and balls. It takes courage to bridge tribal divisions and innate prejudice from all sides.
It’s much easier to be a leader who divides and conquers. This has become common practice (Trump, Johnson, Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi et al) but a relatively easy practice. The only real skill needed is to identify the points of difference between people and then just accentuate them. And you have to admit Trump knew exactly the points of difference and played them like a fiddle.
So my vision of leadership, the egalitarian bringing people together for common cause and making the sum much more than the parts, is not everyone else’s vision of leadership.
It seems that there are a lot of people who want ‘us against the rest’ leaders, the guy that supports me against them, whoever ‘them’ might be.
Historically humanity has often fallen for these leaders. Us against them is the main paradigm in wars of conquest. So perhaps what’s ‘rusted on’ is our limbic requirement to fight. And you can’t fight unless there’s something recognizable to fight against.
I can’t fight time. I can’t fight the planet even though we try. I can’t fight the weather. These are too big and brash to take on, but I can fight my brother. I can fight the neighbor. And I can certainly fight those funny dudes with their crazy religion across the water.
And maybe I am naive to think that leadership on commonality and of gathering together is our default. It is not. Our default position is exactly what we’re witnessing around the world, the leadership of us and them. The only way that the leadership stays in office is if you have slightly more of us than of them.
Where do we go from here?
All this begs the question of where humanity goes from here? What type of leadership is possible if everyone is battling a limbic system that wants to fight, flee or freeze?
At one time I thought the best option was to raise awareness and move people beyond their limbic thinking. Encourage the majority to become more aware, more understanding of the consequences of their choices, and so take more responsibility, especially when they place their ballot.
I even wrote a book about it, Missing Something, on the premise that a raised awareness would help understand all the various problems that humanity faces including political leadership.
Self actuation is a huge challenge in itself, especially when it is so comfortable to live off basic instincts. Political leaders understand this and trigger the instinct all the time. Trump is the quintessential embodiment of the approach. He locks onto base fears and fuels them all the time.
Other political leaders recognise the base instinct and then bend it to their own ends often through authoritarian even military methods. Humans are easily manipulated by our slavery to base instinct with the stick and the carrot.
Just saying ‘raise awareness’ is naive. Even if it would work, making it happen is daunting and likely not possible..
Whilst awareness helps bring people to a heightened sense of self, we need something more.
The leadership humanity needs to give us a reasonable chance of survival can’t rely on scented candles and incantations. We have to play a ‘Trump light’ game that latches onto limbic responses for the political leverage needed to make progressive changes.
This sounds horribly like moving to the right rather than the centre left. I am hardening towards the draconian on some of these things. Responses to COVID-19 show that it is possible to impose strict rules on society and get away with it in the public interest. It’s a small step to a benevolent dictatorship that could tackle the equally huge issues of inequity, food security, and a stressed environment.
The risk in forcing people into decisions that you believe they’re not capable of making due to their basic instincts getting in the way is a slip of the tongue away from control for nefarious purposes. Blink and we are in the dangerous territory of the end justifying the means.
Horrid as it sounds, such control must be part of the conversation because the limbic system in human brains has got us this far. It will be part of what comes next.
Please have conversations about leadership and benevolent control. Whatever comes next it must be better than populism.
Here is what Strategic futurist Dr Richard Hames has to say about the reasons modern politicians fail to prepare for the future…
“It takes work and they do not have the time once all of their administrative duties have filled their days. We need to change the shared worldview regarding what is important and re-frame leadership in that context. But there is no time for such work.
The world has become so complex that most leaders are out of their depth. They lack a relevant toolkit and are in no mood to learn a new one because as leaders they are supposed to know and have the answers.”
Dr Richard Hames, Strategic Futurist
Our leaders have the wrong toolkit given that most carry around the one supplied to the stupid white man and no time to do the work to upgrade or to complete the artisanship any new tools would allow them. This lamentable lack of intent to retrain is capped off with a need to save face. No wonder there is no time.
What a mess this is.
There is one phrase that makes the most sense and that leaves some hope… “out of their depth“. This we can deal with if we pay attention. We can ensure that the next leaders are good swimmers.
Create awareness of the complexities.
This is crucial although very hard to do. Europe has a refugee crisis that on no small part led to other crises like Brexit and the horrendous prospect of Boris in the captain’s chair. But why does it have a refugee crisis? Well, there are many people who would risk a sea crossing in a small boat to a country that will not welcome them rather than stay where they are in the land of their birth. It is so bad that they will also risk the lives of their children on the small boats in the hands of the unscrupulous.
Imagine what it must be like to make such a call; to risk the lives of your children. Don’t assume that the gold across the sea is a big pull to become a refugee, even if that might be your first thought, but think also about the push. Mortar fire, foreign soldiers using your garden fence as cover from snipers, food shortages that mean you have to risk the marketplace each day when last week a suicide bomber met his maker just where you buy bread. More bombs. If you live with this evidence you have a huge push and the risk to your children is worth it.
This, of course, should be an easy one that even Boris should be able to comprehend. Most of the world’s complexities are far more convoluted with predictable, unpredictable, and unknown consequences. What happens if the Greenland ice sheet melts, say by 20%? What would a theatre war centred on the Straits of Hormuz do to the global economy? What happens if the required 2% per annum growth in global food production is not met? Do we know what to do if unemployment goes over 20% thanks to some clever robots?
Whatever the complexity, the skill is to understand the feelings and motivations of the people closest to it. Makes their concerns the centre of thought and the guide to the solution.
For example, it’s not that we have climate change and that we could fix it with a trillion trees. It is that the climate is changing, will change, and, even with a trillion trees that we don’t have the land area to plant, the climate is more a people problem than an environmental one.
What will we do when it is too hot for one month and too wet a few months later only to be drought the next year? It messes with people’s heads and they want the government to fix something that is not fixable.
This is the complexity you need tools to handle. They are the tools of courage and awareness.
Some say that empathy is more useful than fear as the solution because “human sense of empathy is a greater motivator for us to join forces to protect each other and to fight for a better world.”
So there you go Boris, put your own stuff down and imagine what it is like to live the lives of ordinary people all around the world, not just those you want to vote for you.
Recent research from Swinburne University of Technology suggests that most Australians don’t believe that political parties show leadership for the public good and just a handful think that they do.
It is tempting to blame the endless nonsense around Australian politics on the press coverage and given that the surveys were conducted just before a federal election, we might expect partisanship at a zenith.
My party has a bigger pork barrel than yours and all that.
More worrying though is that over a quarter (26.3%) of respondents in the survey said they believed that the federal government, as an institution, shows no “leadership for the public good”. One in four has lost faith in government as a leadership option irrespective of the politics.
This is a much bigger problem than dissatisfaction with political parties. It suggests that a fair few people have little choice in the polling booth, they don’t even think the system works, let alone the parties within it.
The Swinburne and other researchers claim that the reasons for this disillusion are found in the importance of transparency, accountability and ethics to perceptions of trust and confidence in leadership. The idea that people want their leaders to be good, trustworthy people who can be believed. These qualities are lacking in Australian politicians right now and arguably in the political leaders of many other western democracies too.
Wooah, hold on a minute. Just back up, back up will you.
Let’s get this straight. The reason people are disillusioned is that people value transparency, accountability and ethics and they are not getting it from their political leaders.
Alright then, so how does the public, a few months after the survey, vote into government leaders with the worst local record on all three counts?
A gotcha if ever there was one.
Well, we can only assume that whilst people value transparency, accountability and ethics or their own version of it when it comes to their mates, their family, maybe their employer, it doesn’t stretch to who gets their vote. Other factors must influence their choice there.
What we know is that the election campaign was replete with lies, claims and innuendo and was fearfully lacking in explanation of policy. Indeed the party that tried some policy options lost an election that polls, pundits, and even the punters said they couldn’t. All this on the back of a decade of narcissistic nonsense in the parliament that gave the country enough prime ministers to fill a tour bus and enough fiddling around to inspire a quote involving Emperor Nero.
No, here is what is more likely. People may well want their leaders to hold key values but enough of them ignored the lack of these values when they cast their vote, probably because, for the individual, the link between their vote and who they will get in the parliament is tenuous at best.
After the votes were cast and tallied the politicians in the coalition were elected into power. These are the people who completely ignore every single erudite value when they enter the Canberra bubble. They ignore the process of compiling policy options on a whole host of core issues and presenting them for debate in the house and with the public in favour of no policy at all.
Instead, they bring in a lump of coal into the parliamentary chamber and wave it around like it were gold… because they believe that it is.
I am sorry white-coated ones, people might hold laudable values but they went with the biggest liars when it mattered.
When I first read this article on the White House bible study group that is apparently attended on a regular basis by many members of the US cabinet and presided over by an unelected pastor, I thought…
Ironic I know.
Incredulity welled up, slowly at first and then escalated toward anger.
Here we had decision makers responsible for the immediate well being of 325 million Americans, not to mention a whole heap of global economic and diplomatic flow on, who bashed the bible in that truly fundamentalist way. On company time, they were learning the gospels as interpreted by an individual whose political and moral agendas are unknown.
This cannot be right.
It cannot be objective or balanced.
And it cannot be in the best interests of a nation made up of people with a myriad of beliefs and values when leaders focus on the interests of just one particular and often narrow view of the world.
Then I checked myself.
Religion is a reality.
Belief in one god or another is an ever present in many people’s lives and has influenced leaders, governments and policy ever since leadership was invented. People in power invariably have religious beliefs and simply because they are in power, inevitably foist those beliefs on their subjects.
So be it, my calming self thought.
It is what it is.
Whoever is in power, be they elected or simply the pastor brought into the inner fold, will have beliefs. It is impossible to find a true neutral. Even the atheist believes in her disbelief. In all cases of leadership the people who lead will bring beliefs and a value set to the process of leading. Values will influence their decisions and how they make them.
Now if those values may seem to me odd, extreme even, my option is not to vote for them. Perhaps even persuade others to do likewise.
If I don’t have a vote or the system is not exactly democratic my options are less comfortable but I could still make my disagreement known, even if only to myself.
My problem with the White House bible group is who runs it and how they got there.
The process of influence through the tradesman’s entrance is a dangerous precedent. It allows beliefs and ideas that really haven’t been through the public mill to ingratiate the source while many other equally valid beliefs and ideas try to muscle their way through the Fourth Estate.
Again this is nothing new. This process of influence is as old as politics itself but we should be more concerned when it is a brazen as this for it suggests that very few people even see it as free influence.
Add to this the ’fake news’ corruption of the media and getting through the back door becomes even more of a bonus.
So here is the thought.
When you next hear a politician speaking about policy, a rarity I know, think about where the policy came from, who influenced its formulation and what values are affected by it.
This can be quite a salutary exercise for the benefits of preaching to the inner circle stretch way beyond theology.
This revisit was a challenge. I am often confused and confounded by what defines true leadership. There are qualities and attributes that are easy to see and then there is a secret ingredient that only the great have. It is something to do with knowing, a sixth sense perhaps that allows true leaders to do and say the right things at the right times so that they first connect and then take people along with them.
Anyway, have a read of this thought from 2011.
Leaders not heroes
Leadership is hard to define, not easy to learn and is, perhaps, only gifted.
True leaders inspire us and we trust them. We listen to what they say and we accept what they decide. This is because leaders do and say things that make us feel good about ourselves. And what they do we believe in, often without need of explanation or a spelling out of logic.
Heroes are a little different. They motivate us because they are admirable. They do what we would like to do. We can imagine ourselves slaying the dragon and winning the adoration of the damsel or, if you prefer, as a heroine beating up the patriarchy to create equality and emancipation. Our heroes actually do these things. Heroism generally requires conflict.
In our modern ritualized world, our heroes do our fighting for us or they act bravely in the face of danger. Leaders can do these heroic things for they too have courage. Only they do them without having to fight.
Leaders show the way forward as not only the logical but the truthful path. They do this instinctively; picking their way with ease through the complexity of options to choose those that really make sense. They can slay the dragon if needs must, only they will more likely convince it to live happily on the top of the mountain.
They also have vision. A clear notion of what the future looks like that is not an idealized utopia but achievable and likely futures. And leaders are not afraid to explain the future to followers and skeptics alike. The dragon will live on the mountain and will not visit the valley unless invited.
And there is one more critical element that sets leaders apart from both heroes and mere mortals: they can combine fearless vision with timing. They know instinctively how to act and when to act to achieve the desired outcome. Heroes are presented with their opportunity and instinctively move to the front of the cowering throng sword in hand. Leaders anticipate the dragon’s arrival and go outside the village to engage the foe on neutral ground.
It takes courage, smarts and conviction to be a leader. It also needs a certain lightness of hand (and word) dispensed with ease and grace. And wisdom helps, preferably born of experience, or where time has yet to allow for this, then from instinct.
There have always been leaders who have most of these things and these people have become important in our societies. You could probably name your own favorite. And if we did a survey of favorites, the majority of the many leaders that people would chose to name as inspirational come from the past. Many favorites will be historical, a few will be modern, but hardly any will be in public office. Bar the notable exception of a few charismatic entrepreneurs, our current leaders do little to inspire us. This is especially true in politics.
And then there is one final, and perhaps the most critical, quality of leaders, one that seems to be missing from all modern politicians. That is the ability to realize that leadership is not about them, even though they must be strong, stand out and even be heroic. Leadership is actually about the outcome, the means proposed to get there and the timing of the actions. So true leaders must have humility. The quality of knowing that it is just a channel that they present to the people who look to them.
People follow what they intuitively know to be right. All they need is for it to be presented. Sometimes we are conned. A few infamous historical leaders have taken their people down horror roads through force of rhetoric and oratory but have all fallen when the truth came out. When it became clear they lacked humility they were ousted. It sometimes took a great effort but they did not survive any more than the pathways they proposed.
So in the end leadership cannot be about being heroic because actually we lead ourselves. All that leaders really do is show us the way. Outcomes happen as each one of us as individuals take responsibility.
Mental musings on leadership might help a little. The real issue is what the future holds and who will lead us to it.
In our children’s lifetimes we will reach 9 billion souls, oil will be $200 a barrel making alternative energy an economic imperative, agricultural soils will show the symptoms of overuse and we will have to wrestle with the consequences of land, water and food shortages. These things will happen with or without climate change and we will want wise heads to lead us through the challenges with confidence and surety.
Can we expect this from our political elite? Yes we can. Indeed we should demand it. We should ask for courage, smarts, timing and, most of all, humility.
The implication from all this is that we are bereft. Even the apparent honesty of Obama’s ‘yes we can’ was bogged down in partisan politics and mostly failed to shift anything. We have witnessed a generation of working-class stagnation as, simultaneously, economies have concentrated wealth.
This has given the US Trump, a mandate to the UK leadership who decided to pass, and a Russian keen to take his shirt off.
So at this time in human history, true leaders are few and certainly not appearing through the democratic process.
It is not that we are short of causes. We truly need help navigating growing inequality, precarious economies, the evils of terrorism, and any number of specific social problems. But who is strong enough and has the humility to show the way?
Revisiting this particular post was indeed a challenge. I have an idea of what is needed but the times make it almost impossible for it to happen through one or two charismatic individuals. The causes lack obvious conflict and are too diffuse for single voices.
The leadership we need has a morality to it that can belong to everyone and so let everyone lead. It is an awareness of self and empathy to others but without a bleeding heart; for the system of supply and demand is still the foundation that holds everything up and we cannot easily replace that life support.
Can we lead the way as a collective? Maybe.
As a great man once penned, ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’.
YouTube has thousands of videos of kids being cute. Not quite as many as there are of cute cats but a lot.
Many of the kids videos are so endearing because the little darlings are cooperating, making reasoned arguments, listening to each other and showing compassion. They are being their unsullied selves even with chocolate ice cream all over their face.
This purity not only generates clicks, it shows us truths. Gentle yet powerful reminders of the way things should be done if we want a safer, more humane world.
Elizabeth Broers, a head teacher at a primary school in the UK, knows this better than most and wrote about how her 11 year olds could give wise counsel to politicians. The most provocative being ‘be honest’.
Youngsters can smell a fraud from 50 yards and then call it out, often with some cruelty — yes, they have that too. And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.
And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.
It is trite to suggest that we elect a few adolescents to parliament because they would drown in a tsunami of cynical narcissism that would knock them flat as soon as they walk through the door. No, we need to let them spend their youth learning how to mask the smell of the dishonest otherwise they will have a difficult life. We can’t send them to the parliamentary penitentiary, that would be too cruel.
So what about if we get our politicians to grow down.
Send them to spend a few working days a year in a primary school. Not for the photo op but for the experience, in the playground at little lunch, in the classroom, and even in the 4×4 on the way home.
Let them see what a kid sees for a few days a year, as though they were a kid.
If it made them even a smidgen more empathic it would be a start.