The story of American leadership -- and its status now -- owes something to the sagas of great American families. Read the classic plot as an allegory:
A founding giant -- visionary, ruthless perhaps -- establishes the fortune. His sons try to consolidate it. As the generations follow one another, the founder's energy dissipates, like gases flung out from a star. Heirs proliferate. They squabble. Trust funds thin out. Distant cousins go for one another's throats. By the fourth or fifth generation, they are turning up with guilt complexes about the family name and about the founder's long-ago crimes of piracy. Some take to drugs, others to environmentalism. Some heir will tithe his trust fund to a cult. An heiress will be arrested in Saks for shoplifting. Some of the cousins will embrace penitential political correctness, the noblesse oblige of overcompensating elites. Everything -- power, glory, wealth, dignity -- will be ground down at last to the merely human and the occasionally scandalous. The family no longer breeds giants, just threadbare eccentrics and problem cases and a preponderance of ordinary Americans; the family will have evolved, so to speak, into a kind of democracy with a famous name.
These are some of the plot elements of American leadership. The complex maturity of the national success brings with it, paradoxically, a diminution and dispersal. Hierarchies flatten out. Presidents of the U.S. and lesser leaders will be ground down, as the great families were. Scandals, like boll weevils (or special prosecutors), will chew into their administrations. Anyone's 15 minutes of fame is liable to end in a poofing flameout of indignity.
But the story ends to begin again. Each dispersal regroups in a new coalescence. America, for all its disorder, has tremendous energy still. The nation remains programmed to reinvent itself. Fresh leadership somehow still manages to burst up from the chaotic but creative mix. New generations -- even of a degenerating family -- produce surprises, occasionally geniuses, just as new immigrants still struggle into the country full of fire, hoping to establish their own American sagas.
But these energies are pouring into altered formats. Leadership was once attended by a certain amount of mystery. Today leadership is a subject enveloped not so much by mystique as by mystification. Just what is leadership? How does it work? Publishers churn out books on leadership by the hundreds -- mostly treatises on technique, on how to function as an agile and adapting leader in the high-velocity channels of global business.
The premise of the books is basic: the great family model of authority is defunct. The world has changed, and with it the context of leaders and followers -- even the conception of what it means to lead.
The end of the cold war -- the vanishing of a huge external threat that helped give focus and a context of significance to both leaders and followers -- has left Americans in a state of moral disorientation, as if they had lost a defining purpose.
The rise of global competition has cost America its triumphant, unassailable postwar leadership in the world.