Leadership: What makes good leaders?

Interesting question answered by Henry Kissinger:

Kissinger Knows Why the Global Leadership Deficit Is Getting Worse – Bloomberg

But two pressing questions lie in the background: Will we see their like again — men and women who rise to the challenge of their times? And if we don’t, how much does it matter? Is history driven by abstract forces beyond our control? Are leaders merely “crests of foam” and “surface disturbances” as the French historian Fernand Braudel put it in “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”? Or are they capable of changing the direction of history?

The problem with the western discourse is an overstatement of everything minuscule that appears larger than life in the rear view mirror of history. The “best longforms”, for example, are dedicated to the hair splitting of the debauchery of Roman “civilisation”, which pales into insignificance in front of the Indus Valley. Yet, there are numerous Phd’s dedicated to defending the indefensible. Likewise, their “leaders”. I read the book and it is a rehash of the first person accounts, but the reason I read it was for Lee Kuan Yew, who successfully navigated the existential challenges faced by Singapore. The more I read up his accounts and straightforward thinking, it provides a fodder for thoughts.

Leadership is most vital during a period of transition from one order to another. We are certainly in such a period now — not only from the neoliberal order to something much darker but also to a new era of smart machines — yet so far leadership is lacking. We call for leaders who are equal to the times, but nobody answers.  

Here’s an interesting takeaway:

Kissinger offers two explanations for this troubling silence. The first lies in the evolution of meritocracy. (Full disclosure: He mentions a book I have written on this subject). The six leaders were all born outside the pale of the aristocratic elite that had hitherto dominated politics, and particularly foreign policy: Adenauer and Sadat were the sons of clerks, Thatcher and Nixon were the children of storekeepers, Lee’s parents were downwardly mobile. But theirs was a meritocracy with an aristocratic flavor. They went to elite schools and universities that provided an education in human excellence rather than just passing tests. In rubbing shoulders with members of the old elite, they absorbed some of its ethic of noblesse oblige (“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required”) as well as its distaste for populism. Hence Lee’s recurring references to “Junzi” (Confucian gentlemen) and de Gaulle’s striving to become a “man of character.” They believed in history, tradition and, in most cases, God.

Meritocracy is hard to define, but as the west moves towards gatekeeping, and some academic “elites” locally increasingly adopt and adapt the “western constructs”, it will gradually lead to an atrophy of the “institutions” to whose teats they latch on to. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find structures eliminating the inherent human biases, and upstarts coming up with ideas to disrupt the status quo. Possibly, the answer lies in drawing a bigger parallel line to the existing status quo. Unless they absorb blood from outside their comfortable institutional frameworks, it will eventually lead to their gradual downfall. It is a matter of time. Singapore’s greatest tragedy is the lack of a new upstart challenging the status quo- their political process has frozen in time. While the institutional framework remains robust, they lack specific ideas to grow into the next phase of value addition. The success of the US, however, lies in legal immigration and capacity to absorb ideas, while a culture that allows (and tolerates) failures in execution. That explains the success in start-ups (and to a great extent, the evolution of public funding in science).

Recommended read.

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