Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Democratic Leadership

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his article "Democracy and Leadership," defined leadership as "the art of fostering and managing innovation in the service of a free community." There are several key features to this definition, not least of which is the idea that democratic leaders serve free people and their communities. They do not set a course and insist that they be followed no matter what. Nor do they entice people to vote for them so that they can pursue whatever policies they happen to believe to be the right ones. Rather, democratic leaders stand at the head of a free people; they serve the interests of those people as defined by the people themselves. This is a tricky notion, for a real leader is not simply a factotum. Instead, the leader helps the people reach a collective decision that, one hopes, reflects a reasonable understanding of the common good. A leader urges the people to think, to engage critically with their circumstances, their history, their prejudices, their desires. A democratic leader -- whether or how a non-democratic leader differs is a subject for another occasion -- functions as a Socratic gadfly, stinging the people into thought, irritating them into debate and deliberation. Once the people have decided, at the end of this process of deliberation, the democratic leader takes charge of achieving the people's ends. But once again, the leader should not act alone; rather, the leader works with the people (or some subset of them) to achieve the chosen ends, aware always that those ends evolve as the common project goes forward.

Now I suspect that in Schlesinger's mind the leader plays a more active, more directive role, while the people are considerably more passive. This understanding of leadership persists in electoral politics -- particularly in presidential elections, where the assumption lives on that a good president leads a relatively passive people to success as a nation. Schlesinger wrote at a time when developments in science and technology threatened the extinction of the world -- still an important concern (and a topic in presidential debates) though not the preoccupation it was from the 1950s through the 1980s. Schlesinger said that "[t]he mission of democratic statecraft is to keep institutions and values sufficiently abreast of the accelerating velocity of history to give society a chance of controlling the energies let loose by science and technology." This suggests a remarkably directive role for the leader or statesman, one that should make us uncomfortable. Do we want to hand over to leaders the power to control institutions and values, so that they may be restructured and redefined to fit the needs or serve the interests of science and technology? Do we want to hand over this awesome power for any purpose? Whenever a writer begins to speak of "statecraft," we should pay heed -- for the idea conveys a sense that the leader has an insight into what is good for the people that the people may not share and that the job of the leader is to ensure that the people get in line. "Statecraft" seems to suggest a leader who crafts the people, their polity, their government to fit ends (perhaps esoteric ends) he or she sees but they do not. Is such a distribution of power still democratic in any meaningful sense?

And there is reason to worry that the cat is out of this bag, for we have indeed handed over considerable power to politicians and business leaders, something to which Schlesinger, the author of The Imperial Presidency, should have been highly attuned. The crucial decisions about the values and institutions most appropriate to the current technological environment have been entrusted to faceless corporate managers rather than to a deliberative people; the crucial decisions about who we shall be as a people, about how we will relate to the communities in which we live, the world we inhabit, the nations that surround us, have been given into the hands of people who appeal to us in the most venal fashion. As Michael Sandel has noted, we have come to a moment in history when market mentality pervades ever more of our lives together, taking over choices and aspects of human being where economic thinking simply does not belong -- and this without democratic discussion let alone decision. As a result, tremendous power to determine values and institutions has been given into the hands of so-called "leaders" in business and politics -- and taken out of the hands of the people themselves. Perhaps this is inevitable given the large scale of contemporary institutions; perhaps not. But it does suggest that "democracy" is an odd word to describe what remains after real power has been taken or inveigled from the hands of the people and placed into the hands of those invested in the pursuit of self-interest (whether embodied in money or political power).

Schlesinger, I believe, rightly places innovation at the center of the notion of leadership -- a theme I want to pursue in later entries in this series. But for now note that innovation does not come solely from the leader while others simply follow along. Garry Wills argues that the way we talk about leadership often throws us onto the horns of a dilemma where "we seem stuck . . . between two unacceptable alternatives -- the leader who dictates to others, or the one who truckles to them." The former is undemocratic; the latter is no longer a leader but (at best) only an emissary or agent. A democratic leader cannot have "followers" in the same way as a king or a general can. Rather, the democratic leader innovates together with others, inspiring them to invent, to generate new ideas, to "think outside the box." Yes, the leader must do those things as well, but it is important to keep in mind that innovation in democracy is a group process, a shared project of people in civil association with one another. The kind of leadership that may be appropriate in a top-down corporation is not the sort of leadership called for by democracy. A leader, as I said above, urges people to think, stinging them into thoughtful consideration of their world, their beliefs, their values, their institutions. The leader does not shy away from change, for a policy that refuses to change in the face of rapidly changing circumstances is doomed to failure. The leader, in fact, encourages new ways of looking at things, encourages the reconsideration of traditions, customs, values, and practices in the light of a changed environment.  This reconsideration that takes place in public, where the citizens present themselves as public beings, not in a some smoky room or the comfortable premises of a corporate or governmental office. The leader goads people into taking a critical look at where they are and where they may be able to go. The leader does not drag people into a future they cannot grasp, have not deliberated about, and do not accept. Rather, the leader's virtue lies in an ability to trigger thought, debate, reason, and decision. The leader fosters reason and choice, calling upon people to resist (or at least deliberate about) the products of accident and force. Most importantly, the leader is not the decider; rather, she generates the conditions and the desire for critical thought and common decision among the members of the community.

Wills rightly defines the leader as "one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leader and followers." Leaders cannot lead in the absence of followers; the availability of appropriate followers is a necessary precondition for leadership. Different circumstances, different cultures and beliefs, different political, economic, and social systems all help to determine the kinds of followers that are available and, therefore, the kind of leader that is needed. But unless leader and followers share a common goal, unless they are engaged in a common enterprise, nothing will happen that resembles leadership. In fact, when Wills distinguishes the different types of leaders (he offers sixteen types), he does so in terms of the goals they pursue with their followers, rather than in terms of their psychological type, their character traits, or any of the usual markers highlighted by the standard literature. Leadership is, then, a relationship -- a three-legged stool, involving a not-too-dictatorial leader (a primus inter pares), a body of not-too-passive followers, and a jointly pursued goal. That goal is something worked out together, in interaction, in discussion, debate, and deliberation (formal or informal).

Leadership, especially democratic leadership, therefore, describes a complex social relation rather than a feature or set of features possessed by an individual. A proper understanding of democratic (indeed of all) leadership must delve into the dimensions of that complex relation. The complexity of the relation contributes to the sense that leadership is ineffable and unteachable. The depth of the leadership relationship eludes the vast majority of the authors who contribute to the leadership literature, bent as they are on the discovery of the key trait that signals real leadership, the trait they can in turn communicate to their audiences in books and lectures. As John Gardner has put it, "the conventional views of leadership are shallow, and set us up for endless disappointment." But a deeper understanding of the leadership relation that lies at the heart of democratic as of all non-authoritarian leadership can take the mystery out of what makes a leader -- and it makes it possible to find and train leaders. Most importantly for the future of democratic deliberation, it makes it possible to draw leaders out of the people (rather than, for instance, only out of the ranks of the affluent). For, as Gardner argues, the capacity to perform the tasks of leadership is widely distributed among the general population; it is not the private preserve of an elite.

Aristotle argued that citizens are persons who rule and are ruled in turn. This is another way of saying that citizens of a democratic republic must have the capacity to lead as well as to follow, capacities formed through action not through birth, capacities rooted in habits a healthy society inculcates in its citizens. A failure to teach the capacity to lead opens the door for subjection, a decidedly non-democratic result -- and one that threatens us today.

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