Where have all the leaders gone? 7 May 2014: a ‘teachable moment’

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Simon Weaver

On 7 May 2014, South Africans went to the polls for the fifth time since the dawn of democracy in 1994, to elect a government and leaders to take us forward for the next five years.

As I looked at the political landscape to cast my ballot, I found it extremely difficult to be inspired by any of the leaders on offer for this election. Many of them seem to be self-serving and power-hungry individuals who cannot seem to see that leadership is about serving others in a compassionate and caring way, as well as acting with integrity, gentleness and decency. Where are all the leaders? As schools, we have failed our country if we have not been able to produce trailblazers who can make a meaningful difference in the world. What is happening in our ‘Beloved Country’?1

The world’s in a very bad way

Margaret Wheatley, a well-renowned academic with a particular interest in leadership, puts forward some interesting arguments as to why the world is struggling with a paucity of good leaders at this time. In her book So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World,2 she writes that the world is in a very bad way and suggests that there are three reasons for this.

First, she points out that the enormous technological advances that have been made have created a situation where people have become consumption-driven, opinion-centric and paranoid: “…the irresistible forces of self-making, consumerism and the internet interacted and fed on one another to begin the spiral of descent.” Wheatley points out that advertising and reality TV creates unworthy heroes to whom we aspire to imitate and who make us want ‘things’ like cars, houses, gadgets, the latest hairstyle or fashion accessory.

More for me

Similarly, Joel Stein pointed out last year in Time magazine3 that there has been a significant increase in narcissism. A person with narcissistic personality disorder is preoccupied with themselves in terms of vanity, power and prestige. Stein points out that the disorder describes in great numbers the ‘Millennial’ generation – also known as the ‘me, me, me’ generation – but affects us all. We think only about ourselves.

We record our steps on FitBit, our whereabouts on PlaceMe, use Facebook and Twitter to tell the world about ourselves and what we are doing. What we have, what we look like and the power we have, has become all-important to us. Wheatley contends: “This consumer culture of manufactured selves has left behind more than half of the Earth’s seven billion people and conscripted millions of poor people to terrible working conditions to produce what we affluent consume.” This self-obsession has also tainted many of our leaders in South Africa, who are absorbed with their own power and importance, forgetting the millions who are struggling to survive. They use the plight of the poor to garner votes and then build mansions to reflect their perceived selfimportance.

Bring back the brain

The second reason why the world is worse off than ever before, says Wheatley, is because we have become distracted from thinking clearly about what is happening in our communities by the new technologies that have come to the fore. The internet and computers are connecting people in one way, and yet true connections and real relationships are suffering. Life has become so hectic and so full of gadgets that we are becoming more distracted and disconnected. Furthermore, Wheatley points out, “… as we surfed, clicked and linked on the net, discovering things that interest us, we didn’t notice that we were losing fundamental human capacities such as memory, meaning, making and thinking. We were paying a terrible price to everything, but we were too distracted to even notice.” Not only are we losing our ability to relate, we are also losing our ability to think critically.

Command and control

Third, notes Wheatley: “Twentieth-century leaders built corporate empires, organisations too big to lead. Inherently unmanageable by virtue of size and complexity, inherently meaningless by virtue of work reduced to disassociated part, these behemoths were ill prepared for this new world of rapid change and unpredictability.” The rising complexities and the sizes of our organisations have meant that leadership has gone back to leading by the more autocratic means of ‘command and control’. Even though leaders are aware of servant leadership models, they find it far easier under these complex circumstances to tell others what and how to do things, instead of trying to empower them.

These three issues have created the following global conditions, says Wheatley:

“…a world of intensifying emotions and positions moving to extremes, where anger has become rage, opponents have become enemies, dislike has become hatred, sorrow has become despair. It is a world closing shut, where individuals, groups, ethnicities, and governments fortify their positions behind impermeable boundaries. It is a world where critical thinking scarcely exists, where there is no distinction between facts and opinions. It is a world that discredits science as mere opinion, yet still wants science to give us health, long life, security and a way out of our problems. It is a world where information no longer makes a difference, where we hear only what we want to hear, always confirmed not contradicted. It is a world desperate for certainty and safety, choosing coercion and violence as the means to achieve this. It is a world solving its crises by brinkmanship and last minute deals, no matter how important or disastrous the consequences may be. It is a tower of Babel, everybody shouting and nobody listening. It is a world growing more meaningless as lives are taken over by values of consumption, greed, and self-interest. It is a world of people who had been effective and constructive now feel powerless and exhausted. It is a world whose growth, garbage and disregard will not be tolerated by the planet much longer.”

Where are the warriors?

This new world that we live in, which has arisen out of the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age, has resulted in us becoming fearful and unsure of most things. When the going gets tough, we tend to retreat into our private worlds. It is easier to look after oneself and those closest to us; to ‘feather our own nests’.

Our potential leaders have withdrawn from the public domain, instead of asking the difficult questions. Thus, caveat emptor, or as Edmund Burke put it: “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.”4 Our schools have a responsibility to produce leaders of the future, who are able to think outside of themselves, to fight for the vulnerable in our society and to guide us with integrity. The missions of most schools today are to ensure that each child becomes the best they can be. However, this kind of purpose feeds into the narcissistic vision of the world described by Stein and Wheatley. Our children must come to understand that the education they have received is a privilege, and that they have a responsibility to fix this very broken world.

Wheatley issues a call for warriors who will act with gentleness, decency and bravery. I would add compassion and caring. Compassion comprises of two aspects. In order for someone to demonstrate compassion, they have to become aware of the plight of the other. Once this happens, they will then be in a position to care and to do.

Schools must stand up

One of the simplest ways we can teach our children to respect and to love instead of acting in a bigoted, selfish or discriminatory manner is to concentrate our efforts on inculcating manners. Manners are the things we do that show we respect and care for other people. We also need to ensure that our youth has the courage to stand up for what is right and protect those who are vulnerable. When someone is being bullied, they need to have the courage to say something or do something to help the victim.

If we ‘grow’ empathy with as much vigour as we seek to ‘grow’ the economy, I believe we will be able to fix the many broken things in this country. We are all in desperate need of going back to solid values and principles to anchor us in this turbulent world. How did you use the general election on 7 May 2014? Did you use it as a ‘teachable moment’? Did you take stock of where you as a school leader, administrator or teacher stand in relation to leadership in our country? Did you seize the opportunity to pledge to grow our children to serve others? Do it again, today.

1. See Paton, A. (2003) Cry, the Beloved Country. New York: Scribner.
2. Wheatley, M.J. (2012) So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
3. Stein, J. (2013) “Millennials: The Me, Me, Me Generation.” Available at: http://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/.
4. See, for example: http://www.ask.com/question/evil-prevails-when-goodmen-do-nothing.

Category: Winter 2014

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