Monday 2 February 2009

Leadership after Obama

The election and inauguration of Barack Obama has reminded us all of the importance of strong and principled leadership and vision. In the technologically driven ‘open source’ model of cooperation and collaboration that has dispersed authority and power to the masses, we wrongly assumed that leaders were no longer necessary. Convinced of the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ as James Surowiecki, financial columnist with the New Yorker, coined the phenomenon, we were happy to let the Markets determine our future, believing our own propaganda that they would keep us from harm. Now we know that we need leaders and very few stand comparison to the new US president.

In a world that was already cynical and dismissive of its political leaders, the qualities that Obama exudes only serve to highlight the deficit in others. The comparison is perhaps unfair but it is inevitable. The world is envious of America. In a time of international financial chaos they have a leader that most of their population and the rest of the world believes in and believes is fit for the task. They know that the system is broken and they know that they were part of the problem, but they also know that they are part of the solution.

Through his mastery of Internet communication, Obama and his campaign have involved and empowered the whole nation. Even as I write this article, as a subscriber to the Obama website, I have received (as have the tens of millions of Americans who subscribed) an email from the Obama administration telling me that in order to implement the recovery plan for the American economy : ‘I need your help to spread the word and build support.’ Obama knows how to build community and he knows that without community a leader cannot lead. A unified base is essential for a cohesive and inclusive vision to take hold. Without that people will not be inspired to look beyond their own immediate and selfish needs and desires. That is a large part of what is lacking in other parts of the world where politicians stress difference and division as key to their identity thus fracturing whatever unity exists. The most destructive and current manifestation of this is the blame game which projects all responsibility for the global financial crisis on the banks, the government, the employers and the unions to name but a few. It may be comforting to pass the buck but if we do not see ourselves as part of the problem then we will never be part of the solution.

Visiting Washington for the Inauguration one thing struck me very forcibly. In many of the people that I met, their joy and hope was tinged with a sense of shame for the behavior of the US government during the last eight years. One woman actually asked me to apologize to the Irish people for what her country had become! She was no Bush supporter so one might well say her angst was misplaced but she was part of a new community that the Obama campaign had built and nurtured, within which was created an understanding of the radical interdependence and relatedness of all the people of America. Through that experience she could not distance herself from what had gone before but neither could she disengage from her responsibility for the future.

The situation here is very different – Our politicians and other so called ‘leaders’ are still playing with the old rules despite the evidence of failure. Cheap shots and point scoring are the order of the day and even attempts to facilitate negotiation between employers, unions and other social partners are frustrated by adversarial posturing and a dogged determination by all sides to minimize their own exposure and pain. None of this is particularly surprising; It is the way people behave when there is no shared vision and no collective hope. We cannot simply tinker with the nuts and bolts of the economy and expect a different outcome. Unless we rebuild a sense of shared community and values in our land then we are doomed to failure. There is a necessary tension between Rights and Responsibilities that we as a nation have not yet grasped and will not grasp if we continue to focus on Rights and Wrongs!


Póló said...

I hope Obama delivers. The signs are mixed but optimistic.

Markets always needed regulating. Only an idiot would abandon his moral values to the market. The market is an allocating mechansim within whatever range of activity society chooses to allocate to it.

Too often the market proclaims itself emperor (clothes or none) and people are over-awed by this spurious claim.

This doesn't have to be a "religous" question, just one of common sense.

People needed the confidence to confront the "high net worth" idiots. They have now got it but at a high price.

Let's hope they don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Joc Sanders said...

I too hope Obama delivers. He has shown he can talk the talk, but we shall see if he will walk the walk.

I'm enough of a bolshie to be suspicious of calls for leaders. Hard times have produced Fuehrers in the past, lest we forget. I fear we have a few aspirants waiting in the wings here in Ireland. While it is surely foolish to let the Markets determine our future, I think I rather prefer the idea of an 'open source' model of cooperation and collaboration, with dispersed authority!

And then there's Psalm 146: Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human power, for there is no help in them.

Let's work together on that shared sense of community and values - but let's not rely on a Leader to tell us what they are!

Stephen Neill said...

Wise words of caution Joc and history does indeed verify the dangers you point towards. However while not relying on a leader to tell us what our values should be/are we do need motivation to pursue those values.

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - I too am optimistic - The alternative is hopeless!

Matthew Wilson said...

My thought with regard to Obama is this: most people are looking at him to "correct" the mistakes made by George Bush. They have therefore invested quite a bit "almost spiritually" in Obama. They desperately want him to succeed and reclaim America's integrity.
But what do you really know about Obama? Bush spent eight years as the Governor of Texas. Looking back at his tenure there, I don't see much difference in either his policies or leadership style. I personally am pro-life - and that mean, pro-life. Not only to abortion, but also to the death penalty. As a Christian, that places me in the extreme minority. Bush's allowance of the execution of Karla Fay Tucker was inexcusable to me. I never believed he would be an effective president. That act showed his true character.
By contrast, Obama is a product of the "Chicago machine". This is the same machine that also produced the recently fired Governor. His rise was swift and dramatic and has given us really no window as to his leadership capabilities.
I am more than hopeful for Obama's success, but I am also guardedly cautious. I really don't feel like getting burned again. Sadly this stimulus bill that he's fighting to get passed is an indicator to me that not much is going to change.
Just my opinion.