John Gardner on Leadership
|January 7, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
John Gardner on Leadership
The emphasis that I place on citizen action and initiative is not intended to diminish in any way the importance of leadership. An alive, aware citizenry will not lessen the need for leaders; it will ensure better leadership. People get the leaders they deserve.
Effective leadership is essential to cope with the inertia present in any social system. Systemic inertia is characteristic of all societies, but especially true of this nation. Our system of checks and balances dilutes the thrust of positive action. The multiplicity of interests inherent in our pluralism acts as a powerful brake on significant public initiatives. The system is designed to grind to a halt between crises. James Madison constructed it in such a way that it simply will not move without vigorous, driving leadership. I’ve often wondered why he didn’t say so. Having in mind his brilliant contemporaries, I suppose it just never occurred to him that the day might come when leadership would be lacking.
It’s more than a question of leadership at the top. We’d all be better off if we stopped looking for a savior. We need leadership at every level and in every segment of society — not only in government but in business, the professions, labor, the universities, the minority communities. We need leadership that will move vigorously to keep each of those special worlds abreast of the swift social changes that are wracking the nation and the world. But even more, we need leadership that has some understanding of how all the special worlds fit together into a functioning society.
We now have about as wrong-headed an attitude toward leadership as a society could have. We tolerate mediocrity in our leaders and then exhibit contempt for them. We should do precisely the reverse: demand excellence of our leaders and then respect them. It would be pleasant to believe that we are blameless in this — that we want desperately to respect our leaders but cannot. But there is in us, alas, a streak of low envy that makes contempt for leaders a pleasurable emotion — for some of us, all of the time, and for all of us, some of the time.
We must demand of our leaders that they speak to the best in us. It is too easy for leaders to appeal to prejudice, fear, anger, and selfishness, and to find villains to blame for our troubles. There is in us something better than fear, anger, prejudice, and selfishness, something better than the comfortable inclination to blame others — and our leaders must call it forth.
But no matter how enlightened our leaders, they cannot do the job alone. Neither the President nor any other elected official, caught as they are in the constraints of political life, can accomplish what needs to be done. They can help — and be helped — to accomplish it if something else is happening, something much deeper than the political emotions of election day. They can be helped if the American people begin to recognize their own shaping role in renovating the instruments of self- government.
The American people are capable of that — but first they must experience a few concrete victories in tackling their problems and actually solving them.
When this nation began in the 1770s, it had a population of about 3 million, yet it produced at least a dozen statesmen of extraordinary quality — individuals with an exceptional gift for leadership, with intellectual gifts, and a capacity for action, capable of the highest order of statecraft. Today, with sixty-times greater population, we surely have far more men and women of that caliber in our population. But where are they? For the most part, they simply do not enter public life. And those who do find themselves trapped in institutions that cannot be made to function effectively.
We must bring about a renaissance in politics. We must make it possible for our ablest, most gifted individuals to be active in that part of our national life. Men and women of the greatest integrity, character, and courage should turn to public life as a natural duty and a natural outlet for their talents.
Does that seem inordinately ambitious? It is. This is no time for small plans.
What’s your opinion about leadership? Speak up!