Leading From Behind
Posted: 11 October 2004
Recently, several leading news media carried stories about the leadership style of Spain's new prime minister. He reportedly promised that he would lead by following public opinion. This 'lead-from-behind' philosophy, so endemic to socialist democracies, lies at the very heart of all that is weak about Europe today.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was carried to power on a ground swell of popular dissatisfaction with the policies of his predecessor – and particularly the Spanish support of the war in Iraq.
The new socialist Prime Minister quickly set about undoing much of the legacy left by the previous conservative leadership.
I'm sure he has come to the leadership with the very best of intentions but his statements smack of the uncertain populism that has quenched so much of the potent creative, pioneer spirit in Europe, particularly among its young people.
There is nothing sadder than looking deep into the eyes of many young adult Europeans – especially those in the so-called Generation X age bracket, aged in their 20s and 30s – and meeting a vacant gaze that says, 'I have some great dreams, but in the end I guess I'll have to settle for maintaining the status quo.'
Europe's lead-from-behind politicos have much to answer for. They do nothing to inspire a spirit of risk-taking achievement in the societies they oversee.
In many houses of power, the name of the game is this: survive at all costs, don't rock the boat except when it's politically expedient to do so – and when you are well away from general elections.
Don't declare your stance on any issue too quickly, says this approach. Just let things drift along with the tide for as long as you can. Then, as quickly as you can, back away from any options that seem unpopular on the day.
Over my years living in Europe and travelling in many of its major centres, I've asked friends why so much of European society seems averse to leadership from the front.
Some have said it's because Europe has seen so much abuse of power throughout its history; that its people are naturally wary of strong leadership from the front.
It's true; Europe has given the world more than its share of despots. Yet Europe has also produced many of the world's most courageous and effective leaders, people who have inspired generations across the world.
Study Europe's history and you'll find that the jack-booted brutality of tyrants was never defeated by the machinations of politicos who curried favour with focus groups or measured their values against the polls.
The Hitlers of history have never been defeated by the Chamberlains of their times.
Tough times have often produced courageous leaders – individuals who have suffered rejection and hostility even among their own people before emerging as the light and hope of their generation.
Churchill is a good example, and only one of many in Europe's long history.
The very parts of his personality which made him obnoxious at times, and made him the object of mistrust and derision among political colleagues actually made him one of Europe's iconic leaders.
His stubbornness, his romantic views of British history and his capacity for theatricality in public speeches were all mocked by political friends and foes alike, yet they made him the ideal leader for a nation in danger of extinction.
Great leaders have always led according to high ideals and solid personal absolutes, which are tempered with a compassion and empathy for their people.
History has shown time and again that when nations allow a vacuum of positive, idealistic leadership to occur, someone with self-serving and ultimately destructive designs will step forward to fill the gap.
In any society, the social group which has the strongest sense of identity, the most well defined culture, will eventually emerge as the leading voice. Strong identity is not the result of collective poll taking; it is at least in part shaped by leadership.
Positive identity in any group is influenced by leaders who are sensitive to the views of the people, while keeping an eye on their own moral compass. True leaders are willing at times to jettison the perceived wisdom of the day to follow longer-term objectives.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that political leaders should ignore the will of the people they serve. Democratic leaders can only function with the consent of the people who employ them.
But people don't vote individuals into positions of trust and power just to have them sit on their hands, waiting to be pushed into action.
Our vote for any person or party is our way of saying: 'We want you to take us somewhere, to help us provide a better world for our children.'
'We want you to think through and act upon the things we don't have the time to engage – to work through the big issues and take a course of action that is both compassionate and positive in its long-term impact.'
Sometimes, people believe that you can only be a servant of the people by being docile and totally malleable in all your views. This is a mistake.
Jesus Christ was a remarkable leader. Two thousand years after his death he still holds the loyalty of millions of people of all races, including a great many who will die for their faith in him.
It was Jesus who said that his followers should not seek to 'lord it over' those they lead, but to offer themselves as servants. 'He who wants to be greatest,' said Jesus,' must be the least.'
Yet, there was not doubt who was the leader of his group. No polls were ever conducted among his fast-growing band of followers; no votes were taken to decide how he should react to the situations human needs he encountered.
He didn't stop to seek anyone's approval to heal someone, for example, or to provide food for the poor, or to challenge the religious powers of his time. This unwillingness to 'toe the line' in the end brought about his capture and death.
Even when his actions were sure to lose him immediate support, he took the big picture view and worked for the path that carried long-term benefits for the most people. His teaching and his works now inspire billions of people the world over.
Yes, he had the heart of a servant: he acted always with respect and with the best interests of others in mind. But he was never guided by expediency or popular acclaim, or even just the drive to establish some personal legacy in history.
There's nothing heroic about merely following the trends. Societies move forward only when leaders lead.
© Mal Fletcher 2004