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Lost Leaders and Bold Alternatives

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Lost Leaders and Bold Alternatives

Leadership, like all historical phenomena, moves in cycles. Periods of boldness (think of the 1940s, the 1980s, and the early 2000s) are followed by years of very limited horizons (think of the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s.) We are living today in a time of terrible self-constraint. Our leaders face difficult economic, political and military challenges, but they are no worse than what their predecessors confronted. Remember the Great Depression, the Second World War, even the oil shocks and Vietnam War of the early 1970s? The problem today is that our leaders remain stuck in the low cycle of self-limitation. They just cannot manage to think big and turn our crises into opportunities.

What does this mean? If the history of the last century proves anything, it is that careful management of crises and political “muddling through” can only get you so far. The great leaders who made serious contributions to human betterment took calculated, bold risks in exactly the kinds of circumstances we face today. Franklin Roosevelt did not try to “manage” the Great Depression as Herbert Hoover had done; he took risks to transform the American (and world) economy. Winston Churchill did not try to “manage” British decline in the face of German Fascism; he rallied his people to rebuild their military and their empire. Ronald Reagan did not try to “manage” the Cold War; to the consternation of his advisors, he imagined and pursued a new form for superpower relations. Great challenges require grand visions, with a tolerance for some risk-taking.

Our global problems have become worse in the last year because our leaders at all levels of all societies lack vision, imagination, and the courage for calculated risk-taking. Republicans and Democrats in the United States cannot transcend their tired, counterproductive rhetoric about tax-cutting and entitlement protection. European Union leaders cannot escape the band-aid efforts to patch together a failing currency that must be re-made with more effective institutions. United Nations diplomats, especially those from Russia and China, continue to defend Iranian sovereignty as they watch that country pursue what everyone recognizes as a nuclear weapons program that will produce a regional war if it is not stopped soon.

We do not need to focus on politics alone. Take our “great” universities. Has anyone met a bold educational leader recently. The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, following recent scandals at the University of Miami and Ohio State, shows that the presidents of the world’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions of higher education are asleep at the wheel. Universities are hemorrhaging money from academics, but they continue to pour resources into glitzy athletic programs that overpay coaches, under-educate students, and frequently break the law. Boosters at the University of Miami hired prostitutes for players. A coach at Penn State abused young boys. The story continues but university leaders do nothing systematic. They meekly apologize and move on with more of the same.

It is not too late for bold leaders to emerge. It is not too late for new directions. It is not too late to proclaim that the evident failures in our inherited institutions and policies mean that we must try something serious and something new. That is the discussion Americans should have in the 2012 presidential election. That is the discussion Europeans should have as they contend with new national governments and a failing currency. That is the discussion the international community should have about nuclear non-proliferation, inequality, and education for a new century.

I am a historian so I remain confident that the wheel of time will turn again, producing bold (probably young) new leaders. That is why I like the “Occupy” movement, which is now spreading from urban downtowns to college campuses. The students in sleeping bags and tents do not have the answers, but they are asking the right questions. Why should we accept limited horizons? Why should we support failed institutions and unimaginative leaders? Can’t we do better?

I hope our most ambitious and talented citizens are listening. Now is their time. Now is their opportunity. A time of bold change is upon us.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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