LEADERSHIP: The Real Points of Light

Its charter fading, its goals diverging, the nation needs to redefine what leadership means

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Each expansion of democracy and power (for women, for example, or for minorities) in effect rewrites the social contract and thus disturbs the previous arrangement of leadership. Inundations of immigrants confuse the American sense of identity, of what it means to be an American.

Cultural relativism rattles the self-confidence so critical to strong leadership and undermines the authority of established leaders. Challenges from constituencies all over the cultural, sexual and ethical map leave leaders confused not only about their priorities but also about their basic framework of right and wrong. How to accommodate gay rights, for example, to traditional religious beliefs?

Equally destabilizing has been the almost inconceivably rapid democratization of information -- the electronic saturation of the world. Once, the leader was the one who knew things and therefore understood what the followers did not: knowledge was power, and following was an act of faith. Now sheer, unexpurgated information accelerates history. It is also hell on mystique. The media help create leaders and then eat them alive -- a sort of electronic Aztec sacrifice.

A citizen in a bad mood sees a long devolution from the original giants, a fragmentation of American purpose and identity, a collapse of the nation's organizing energies. Which, according to this pessimistic reading, is where leadership stands now: at the feuding, fifth-cousin stage.

A citizen in a good mood sees that, all things considered, the fifth cousins are doing well enough for themselves -- leading the world, for example, in the information fields that will shape the next century. Reports of the death of American vitality are exaggerated.

Mussolini remarked, "It's not so much that it is difficult to rule Italy. It's useless." Surveying the postelection wreckage, Bill Clinton may be tempted to endorse a similar thought. But the age of Mussolinis has ended (one trusts) in what are now the Western democracies. The age of pre-eminently powerful presidencies may be over as well. The focus of leadership disperses. The real "thousand points of light" in America are the new multiple centers of leadership in business, the sciences and arts, politics, religion, community life and so on.

There is no sense in getting too inspired or sanguine. In the 1990s a cynic's eye reads a certain rotted sociology in important places -- an America disuniting into self-righteous tribalism (gridlocking interest groups; the indignant, victim-singing, litigating, on-the-make cousins, who are fighting over a national patrimony spread too thin).

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