When Leadership Fails Us

Last week was a difficult time in America.

The racially motivated murder at a supermarket in Kentucky, the politically motivated terrorism of pipe bombs being mailed to critics of the current president and the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh were only the latest incidents of terror, hate and violence that have been in the headlines that chip away at the bedrock of our Democracy: The basic norms that link the Rule of Law to Civil Society.

Antithetical leadership is the approach being adopted by many public leaders today. They are stoking the flames of fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in an effort to destabilize our Constitutional Democracy and push us closer to Dictatorship.

We first saw this in Europe during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, culminating with the National Socialist Party in Germany, the National Fascist Party in Italy, the Falange in Spain, the Vichy in France and the Fatherland Front in Austria. Today, we’re seeing a replica of such movements with “Strongman Leaders” attempting to promote the concept of Nationalism as the way to address complex problems in Western nations. This goes against the “basic norms” as espoused by Hans Kelner, widely regarded as the foremost thinker in the field of the Pure Theory of Law. The question that we ought to consider asking now is “Are we repeating the same mistakes that led to a series of antithetical political leaders pushing an agenda of anti-Democratic public behavior?”

All the tools of leadership - effective communication, optimism, technical skills, vision, drive - can be used for the collective good of society, or to stoke fear. If measurements of success for leadership are performance-related, its is clear to me that using those tools to advance a vision that results in greater team and individual success is what the role of successful leaders are. With that comes financial and other fiduciary “wins”. But, if leaders fail to exercise their talents in ways that promote sustainable improvement, then that form of leadership can be safely categorized as antithetical leadership.

In the OVP Leadership Blog, we’ve discussed a number of “tactical” approaches to deploying leadership skills that bring people together, encourage reflection and offer ways to improve performance. Our hope is that some of the things discussed here have been useful to leaders of small and large groups, alike. We have deliberately tried to shy away from more obvious political discussions regarding leadership, because we recognize that our readers hold many different perspectives about the current political climate. But this past week’s events have caused us to reflect on the roles leaders have, beyond the tactical.

One of the many gifts that leadership ought to provide those of us that are fortunate to practice it, is humility. We ought to know, as leaders, that we are only as good as the people we work with. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would not have been able to “make” Apple Inc. into the phenomenon it has become by virtue of their sweat equity and smarts. They needed great teams of people to help make real their visions.

The same holds true for the current president of the United States. He has been given a gift of public leadership. He has a responsibility wield the power of his position carefully, lest he unwittingly (or purposefully) pushes this nation further into chaos. The framers of the United States Constitution specifically created the Separation of Powers between the three branches of the federal government to prevent an abuse of power.

Nothing in a Democracy happens in vacuum. The tragedies of the last week are tied to the idea of who "we" are as people and as "Americans". Many of the accomplices to these events - fear, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, hate, unfettered quests for power, lying and scapegoating - are "hiding in plain sight" in our public discourse.

Some people in leadership positions are failing us and reneging on their oaths. Other, more prominent people in positions of power are actively working to "turn back the clock" and strip away all of the societal gains this country has forged over the last 155 years. And still there is "debate" about how to respond in "abnormal " times.

Shame on all of us who call ourselves “leaders” for allowing the enemies of Democracy to stoke hate, normalize pathology and trample on human rights. Leaders have a responsibility to help pave the way for the betterment of the larger group. Leadership must not be myopically self-serving, at the expense of the greater good.

Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were confronted with similar fascists threats (here and abroad), and resolved to push back with Democratic Principles. But a key of their success was being able to agree on truth: All men are created equal endowed with certain unalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ought to be able to agree that hate is the enemy of truth, and that leadership is required to confront hate.

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Alejandro Bodipo-Memba

Chicago, Illinois