LEADERSHIP: The Real Points of Light

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

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It is not coincidental that the crisis of leadership arises at a time when a baby boomer sits in the White House and his generation has inherited positions of power throughout the society. In a traditional sense, the baby boomers never learned leadership. They did not inherit self-confidence and instinctive ease as leaders. They taught themselves, in fact, that leadership was suspect, corrupt, sinister and patriarchal. During the 1960s Americans began a decisive journey across the moral border from the old territory of duty to the new land of rights. The old culture of duty encouraged the skills of leadership and assumed its legitimacy. Then, in part because of the disastrous exercise of American "duty" in Vietnam, duty gave way to the very different universe of rights and, after that, of entitlements (which represent the decadence of the American guarantee). John Kennedy's Inaugural "Ask not" was a perfect expression of the duty ethic. The new culture of rights reversed the flow from individual to society: it said, "Ask what your country can do for you; you are a victim, and everyone owes you."

The need for leadership in national crisis is always clear. If leadership fails, disaster results: cause and effect. The imperative for leadership in today's America -- a mature democracy in relative peacetime, ramshackling along on cruise control (though with engine knocks, a hole in the muffler and rust on the underbody), not quite dysfunctional -- is not nearly so clear and immediate.

And yet problems remain. They have much to do with the world's problems now (the economy, trade, environment, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy to address immense slaughter and tumult elsewhere), as well as sizable issues at home, moral and otherwise (crime, poverty, drugs, education, abortion, affirmative action).

Old-style leaders were expected to have a vision, a solution, and then lead followers to it. This was, of course, sometimes dangerous: suppose that the leader, endowed with charisma and a gift for keeping the military happy, turns out to be a visionary monster, a Hitler? Such leadership is always a temptation, the path of least resistance, especially during unstable times.

But for the moment, a new story of American families seems to be emerging, along somewhat less traditional leadership lines. The sort of leader needed today is the kind who can assume a reasonably well-educated and informed electorate but help it sort through the inundations of information and opinion (much of it corrupt, self-serving, pseudo-moral) toward solutions. Americans need leaders who will not so much enforce a vision (though visions remain indispensable) as lead people to understand the problems they face together and the costs and effort necessary to solve them -- the changes in behavior and attitude sometimes, the sacrifices and above all the need to think and adapt. The key to leadership now is to get Americans to act in concert and take responsibility for the courses that they have set for themselves.

The energy and the real light sources -- the new leaders -- are there. The job for Americans -- after passing through a stage of disunion and redefinition -- is to try to find their way toward common ground again. Enough of the Pluribus, for the moment; a little more of the Unum.

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