Volume 4 Number 9
Leadership '- the Curse of the 20th Century?
01 October 1991

Never have more people been murdered than under such `great' leaders as Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Never, perhaps, have more people been led into wars not of their choosing than by lesser leaders like Lyndon B Johnson and Saddam Hussein.

At long last, the led are taking the lead. While Gorbachev was held captive in the Crimea and Bush was playing golf in Maine, the Soviet people defied the tanks in Moscow. Two years before, as the two superleaders bobbed on the waves around Malta, the people of Eastern Europe had liberated themselves in the streets of Prague, Leipzig and Budapest.

People everywhere are taking back their manhood/womanhood. A Supreme Soviet parliamentarian was asked, `Who are you following now, Yeltsin or Gorbachev?' He replied, `Now I am my own man.'

Could it be that leadership has been the curse of the 20th century? Never have more people been murdered than under such `great' leaders as Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Never, perhaps, have more people been led into wars not of their choosing than by lesser leaders like Lyndon B Johnson and Saddam Hussein.

Thomas Paine, a radical Englishman of the 18th century, dared to utter the obvious: `Rulers gain their power through our surrender to them of our rights, our vote, our responsibility and our souls... it makes them strong and us weak.' He wrote, `They suck out our life force, our aura of energy. Why then do we kneel and bow down to them?'

Why, we might ask, did we exalt to prominence such pathetic misfits as Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin and Joe McCarthy? Soviet citizens, to their credit, cringed when they heard the feeble, faltering Brezhnev speak. US citizens, for some strange reason, searched for words to excuse their fumbling, forgetful Reagan.

Perhaps leaders have at times been a necessary evil. Yet there is something questionable about the chemistry between the charismatic leader and the led, between celebrities and the public.

Leadership, even at its best, is a dangerous thing. One of the few things we know with some certainty is that not only does power corrupt, but it corrupts absolutely when not limited or temporized.

Maybe we have been conned by our ancient mythologies into believing in things that may not be real. Our vulnerability to Camelots and messiahs made it difficult for the concepts of independence and the rights of man to emerge out of the past. It may also have helped to prepare the way for the totalitarian messiahs of this century.

It could be argued that the most progressive periods of human history were those with the weakest leaders and the strongest citizenry. For reference, one might consider the Athenian period before 400 BC, the Renaissance, the English Enlightenment and the American Revolution.

Around the world today people are leading and the leadership is scrambling to catch up. People are calling for liberation, but Bush is calling for order. In the Soviet Union Sakharov's heirs are shouting at the leadership to `get out of our way'. History is saying, `When the people lead, the leaders will follow.'

The leader-led structures of the past are now redundant. Pyramid organizational charts, relics from the Roman empire, do not meet the requirements of a society flattened by the equality of the information age.

The philosophical shallowness of America's current leadership appears to be in sharp contrast to the depth of perspective of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison and Monroe.

These earlier men, lest we forget, were aware of the dangers of unchecked rule and came remarkably close to creating a nation ruled and run largely by the people.

Perhaps, over the centuries, we have been conditioned to respect more than to suspect rulers. We are fascinated by the charismatic leader.

The idolizers of the charismatic in the USA still pay homage to the contrived memory of John F Kennedy. Once-hidden information has unveiled this fabricated hero. He is now seen to have been weak of character, devoid of principles and purpose except for power, and so startlingly irresponsible and immature that he brought the world to the brink of World War III.

Could it be that the singular leadership of antiquity is becoming counterproductive_ in the more horizontal society of the knowledge age? Has old-type leadership become a detriment to change? There may be more common sense in a cafe of common people than in a summit of political saints.

Some predict that we may be moving towards a more diverse and a more shared responsibility of leadership - many heads rather than one head.

Illustrative of such a trend is what the global General Electric Company is attempting. `We've got to take the boss element out,' says the CEO of GE, John F Welch Jr, `and help employees to think for themselves.... We've got to win by our ideas, not by whips and chains.'

At GE and other companies on the cutting edge of commerce there is a movement to dismantle executive power and control centres by turning over the initiative to groups of individuals. By getting the employees to lead, these companies hope that they will `be able to change at least as fast as the world is changing'.

If the natural state of man is freedom, and liberty like life itself is a gift of God, the people who are rising up around the world must shed their reliance on leaders and reclaim their birthright to lead.

We don't need greater leaders. We need great people.

Stewart V Lancaster is Professor of Historical Perspectives at Pima College, Tucson, Arizona.