The university of hard knocks?


Usefully, for me at least, two of my current interests have converged. On the one hand, there is my annual lecture with its thesis that the three major sources of social power - hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration – have become unbalanced.  On the other hand, there is the case Patricia Kaszynska and I have been building for a much more critical look at the political consensus behind social mobility as the primary route to address injustice.

In ‘The Twilight of the Elites’, Christopher Hayes see these issues are clearly intertwined. He argues that the modern American social elite has stitched up control of society using the rationale that those already at the top have a near- monopoly of the only talent that matters – a particular form of intellect. It is this narrowness of talent and the detachment of the elite from the rest of society which has led to a wide range of leadership disasters (from Enron to Katrina) and thus to ever lower levels of public trust.

That the question of how to restore and maintain the authority of leaders, particularly political leaders has been around for almost as long as political philosophy doesn’t make it any less important.  The new dimension, in comparison to the times of Xenophon or of Machiavelli, is the coincidence of democratic Governments both elected by the people and, more often and not, despised by them. And, of course, this crisis of legitimacy extends to most other large and powerful organisations.

There are those who are not concerned. Some say it is a good thing that leaders are weak and worried, other argue that being distrusted does not impair the determined leader’s capacity to get things done. I don’t agree, believing not only that we need credible leaders to make wise decisions for the long term but also that feeling well led (whether in a nation, an organisation or a family) is important to our sense of fulfilment and well-being.

I have written before of Professor Keith Grint’s contrast between conventional leadership and that needed for many ‘wicked ‘ modern problems: he calls for leadership ‘about questions not answers’. ‘about relationships not structures and ‘about reflection not reaction’. I like these dichotomies and think they are important to making change happen, but in terms of winning consent for that change I think Grint underplays the need for leadership as authority. In these post-deferential times, the characteristics which experience and reflection lead me to prize most in political leaders are:

First: a leader who builds a compelling and noble mission (not just vague fluffy values but a tough minded theory of change) and then convinces us over and again that this mission can be achieved, but only if we too play our valued part.

Second, a leader who is secure in her own position and is not, therefore, endlessly weighing up how to balance the interest of inner circle and allies with those of the wider citizenry.

How might the absence of these qualities be linked to the increasingly closed circle of privileged, career politicians?

Is it perhaps that mere cleverness is by its nature rational, utilitarian, pragmatic and thus lacking in the conviction necessary to define and stick to a mission (albeit that pragmatism will be need to achieve the mission)? Is it also that the confidence and authority necessary to mobilise citizens and keep allies in line comes from having a biographical hinterland which gives leaders fortitude and impresses followers?

If so, it might mean that some people are just not cut out to lead (I will keep a diplomatic silence over whether this includes our current crop of leading politicians).

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