When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them—to places that established new norms and higher expectations. Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity. These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating. These leaders took risks that elevated everyone. These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission. When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership. Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.
Affluence has had much to do with this dearth of leadership. For the last twenty years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we frankly have not needed much leadership. If a difficult question remained unanswered, the consequences were few. Prosperity assured enough slack in the system that mistakes could be absorbed with little pain and no devastation. Evolutionary pressures that might have selected for capable leaders were largely absent. Foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, writes that the post-Cold War days of optimism are over, replaced by a new “Age of Anxiety” that portends a “zero-sum future.” The so-called “Great Recession” that started in August 2007, and the turmoil of a global rebalancing of power that calls into serious question the future of America’s superpower status, means that whatever slack existed in the system is now gone. Roger Altman and Richard Haas outlined the brutal details of American profligacy and declining American power in the journal of Foreign Affairs where they claimed, it was a lack of political will at home, as opposed to imperial overstretch “that threatens American power and security.” The fact is everything has a consequence again, and leadership is essential.
Historians may also conclude that besides affluence, technology—in spite of all of its many benefits—played its own insidious role in the decline of leadership. They may find that those digital conveniences we have come to love and dare not live without, which have forced upon us an incessant need to be connected, has pushed leadership aside in favor of distraction and trivialities. Technology has produced a conversation that is fast, short, and shallow. It has fooled us about friendship; convincing us we are just a click away from adding a new so-called friend. Research has been Wiki-fied, which has led to a diminished capacity to search, contemplate, hypothesize, test, reconsider, conclude, and start the search again. In the process we have lost our sense of method. Debates—once like symphonies—have been reduced to sound bites and video snippets. Solving complex problems is no longer the goal; increasing “click-throughs” and “going viral” is all that matters.
These future pages of history can, however, be avoided if we take care to reclaim our capacity for solitude, courage, and moral purpose. This requires that we shift our behaviors to those that produce depth of thought and origination – that we have the discipline to disconnect. It requires that we become transcendently courageous and that we focus on the ‘why’ of what we do. It means that we each must become our own Lincoln, Gandhi, or King. We can begin by leading from our soul and embracing a conscious discipline of self-restraint and introspection, so that we may regain our purpose and our will. The process starts with practicing solitude so that we may know ourselves; then summon the courage of our convictions; and remain steadfastly committed to our purposes.