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Where Are The Leaders? (Washington Post)

seeking solace by anjan58 on flickr

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and author of “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making” wrote a very interesting piece for the Sunday, March 29, 2009 Washington Post titled “Where Are The Leaders?

After a few brief observations about the current state of leadership in DC, Rothkopf writes:

Gradually it becomes clear. This is not just a global economic crisis. It’s a global leadership crisis. Obama is still finding his footing, Gordon Brown is on his way out, Hugo Chavez is nuts and Wall Street management is larcenous. Isn’t there someone somewhere with decent values, a firm hand on the tiller and at least one big new idea? Where have all the leaders gone?

While Rothkopf does take a shot at Obama for “sitting in the same “Tonight Show” seat that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan once occupied” and sets low expectations for the upcoming G20 meetings in London (“The amount of leadership that comes out of any meeting is in inverse proportion to the number of leaders attending“), his piece ultimately takes a measured approach and presents some valuable ideas in looking at leadership over the long term.

Here’s Rothkopf’s perspective the genesis of the current leadership crisis.

How did we get here? In hindsight, the sequence of history is clear. After Vietnam and Watergate and oil crises and the failures of Eurosocialism in the 1970s, many people bought into the idea of government as the problem. The efficient markets would tell us what and who should succeed. Here in the most powerful country in the world, Republicans and Democrats alike bought into the philosophy. The values of business — profit above all, wealth as the prime measure of success, short term over long term — became society’s values. We came to expect too much of our business leaders and too little of our political ones.

Then it all came undone. Bubble after bubble burst, in emerging markets, technology and real estate. The gap between the richest and the poorest started to rival historical extremes. During the past few years, the world’s most important leader, the U.S. president, became reviled and disrespected. And as this latest crisis has unfolded, the myth that the people in charge knew better collapsed faster than an over-leveraged investment bank. The result has been a leadership void.

Then for some optimistic realism, he writes:

Certainly people and ideas will ultimately fill this void, and institutions will emerge reshaped by them. The question is when? Even as we search for leaders to follow, we must recognize — especially as we are weighing the initiatives of today’s would-be leaders — that even though great leadership happens in real time, we often fail to appreciate it except in retrospect. Despite FDR’s unprecedented legislative output in his first 100 days, including 14 major pieces of legislation and a bank bill that was turned around in mere hours, he was hammered by H.L. Mencken and other commentators as being out of touch. Even Churchill spent much of the 1930s frustrated and on the fringes of power.

The author lays some historic as well as contemporary examples of leadership rising out of crisis and cites some of the recent missteps experienced by President Obama and his administration but then continues:

But to paraphrase Roosevelt, Obama can only be as great a president as the people let him be. If citizens had turned on Roosevelt early, he would have faltered, along with the nation’s recovery. Because what is often lost in such discussions is the idea that leadership implies collaboration. We get the leaders we demand and thus deserve. (As the United States and England were making Roosevelt and Churchill, Germany and Italy were making Hitler and Mussolini.)

Lately, it feels harder to live up to our share of the bargain. Imagine if partisanship, impatience and short-sightedness make it impossible for this new cast of leaders to have a full chance to define this new era. It is worth remembering that prior to their greatest successes, Lincoln and others as diverse and illustrious as George Washington and Mohandas Gandhi were written off as failures.

Rothkopf concludes that leadership is a function of followership and that ultimately we get the leadership we deserve and more importantly create.

In the end, a big part of the answer in our quest for leadership resides with the American public. We are the ones who will embrace the ideas and empower those who act on them. We are the ones who will decide what we accept or demand as the proper role of government, of markets and of America in the world. This will require more reason than emotion, more patience than impulse, more focus on core values than on economic value creation, more of a long-term view and less focus on instant gratification. After all, our wrong choices in these arenas helped create our leadership vacuum in the first place.

David Rothkopf will be online Monday, March 30 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Washington Post Outlook article and you can submit questions before or during the session.

Photo credit: seeking solace by anjan58 on

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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