Savir's Corner: Leadership in the modern age

Leadership is mostly about courage – civil courage to face constituencies with integrity and honesty, to include them in policy-making.

Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R) (photo credit: reuters)
Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R)
(photo credit: reuters)
With the scientific and information revolutions, the world is changing at an unprecedented pace. In the past decade, scientific and technological discoveries and progress have revolutionized economies, health and education systems and global communication.
Economies are less run by governments, which have been sidelined mostly to the roles of regulators, but to a large degree by big multinational companies on one side and worldwide social protests on the other.
Scientific breakthroughs, such as laser therapy, gene treatment and better cancer treatments, have revolutionized health and medical care. Life expectancy globally has risen from 50 to 70 years in the past half century; in the most developed countries it is already above 80.
Education has been democratized and globalized.
Video-based and online education today is reaching every corner of the globe. Illiteracy has dropped globally in the past 50 years from above 40 percent to less than 15%. There are 260 million university graduates who are the real engine of the modernized world.
The world citizenry in general is more interconnected than before, with a global Internet penetration rate of 35% and 1 billion people using Facebook as a means of interpersonal communication.
The information revolution has empowered individuals and societies who can independently express their identities and forge value- and interest-driven communities across borders.
People are being recruited via the Internet – nongovernmental organizations have gained great power in forming national and international agendas for change to voice their protest.
In these processes, governments have become less relevant and find it more difficult to rule a more educated, empowered and interconnected constituency.
Dictators have become a dying species and democratic leadership is in trouble almost the world over.
And yet government has not been replaced. It is in charge of life and death issues and, at least formally, in charge of economic and social policies.
Within this dichotomy of great responsibility on one side and lesser clout and influence on the other, the whole nature of governance is changing and we must ask ourselves what the nature of leadership should be in a transforming world.
Leadership has to adapt to the great changes in the world and to redefine its role in relation to people and countries, according to new guidelines of a conceptual and operational nature.
On the conceptual level:
• Leadership today must recognize the growing empowerment of individuals and redefine its relationship with the citizen. There must be a more equal relationship between those who govern and the governed, the equal rights of citizens must be upheld – people’s lives are sacred and have to be treated with great respect. Equality between people is a cornerstone of social progress. Government has to serve people, not dictate to them.
Democratic governance is about respect of the single individual who should not be the victim of power, but the source of it. Government and leadership have to become more modest.
• Leadership must adjust to a more globalized world. As much as the modern leader needs to focus on the individual, he/she also has to open country and society to global opportunity and be alert to global dangers.
Leadership must be cosmopolitan in outlook to understand the advantages of global markets, social trends, multiculturalism and modern communication, as well as free movement of people, money, goods and, mainly, ideas. Today three flags hang over governmental offices: the country’s, the region’s and the world’s.
• A good leader is a good servant of the people. Modern leaders do not only get elected every four years but also have to seek legitimacy daily on social networks.
The people are the sovereign and they will replace inattentive leaders – just ask Hosni Mubarak.
• Modern leadership means to understand what constitutes power today.
It is not anymore about colonies, occupation of territory or natural resources, war and war machines.
What makes a country strong is the internal cohesion of its society, its democratic fiber and institutions, the level of education, science and technology, free economy and social equality, as well as its place among the nations. These important elements have to be strengthened by creating new priorities and getting rid of old, irrelevant assets.
• At the same time, the leadership of newly acquired power has also to be a moral leadership. Leadership that puts human equality above all.
Racism, xenophobia, superiority syndromes, corruption and violence have no place in a people’s world.
These dangerous tendencies tend to isolate societies and open them up to violent conflict. The moral high ground is also the platform for modern clout.
The modern leader therefore has to be sensitive and empathetic to the individual, be open to reaping opportunities from a changing world, serve a cause bigger than him/herself and be moral. Also, it would not hurt if modern leadership included more women and younger people.
On the operational level:
• Leadership means first and foremost an honest dialogue with the constituency. People reject today’s politics as a form of egocentric, dishonest manipulation.
The dialogue with society has to be honest regarding the situation facing the people and the country and the policies that are needed. This is also true for decisions that are necessary difficult and unpopular. Modern democracy is not about focusing on the eventual ballot box, but rather about seeking ongoing legitimacy, not necessarily popularity.
National long-term interests are more important than short-term public opinion polls. Therefore, leaders today have to respect their public, who are better informed and more empowered. With this more informed constituency, leaders cannot dictate, they have to launch an inclusive social process.
When it comes to social issues, the decision-making process has to be inclusive, and even more so in the implementation of policies. A new partnership has to be forged between governments and nongovernmental organizations, which often know the needs of society better.
On economic policies, the private sector on one side and the trade unions on the other should be consulted and involved in a public-private partnership.
The financial capital is with the private sector and much of the human capital with trade unions. Leaders need to lead collective policies and create new coalitions and balances.
In all of these processes, leadership means inclusion and partnership. What is true for wartime, including the participation of the young, should be true for peacetime.
• Modern leadership cannot rely anymore on beating the national drum.
People will not automatically march to the sound of that drum. Processes in the world are driven today more by motivation than by the use of power and territorial assets. Small and poor societies rise up against the military giants of the world. A balance of motivations needs to be created, supplementing a balance of power.
Leadership therefore is today very much about understanding a more connected world – interconnected and interdependent. National boundaries are of lesser significance. Regional and international configurations are necessary for economic development, security and peace. Policy-making in this era is therefore very much about collective diplomacy and international coalition-building. For socioeconomic policies, regional and international legitimacy are increasingly important. The leaders of the stronger links of the international chain need to have empathy for the weaker links, as weak economies can lead regional economies into crisis; the leaders of the weak countries have to create partnerships also according to broader international interest and standards. Interconnectivity demands above all the ability of leaders to cooperate and consider new partnerships.
The same goes for war and peace. With the menace not stemming anymore from traditional armies, but rather from terrorism, ballistic weapons and tools of mass destruction, security today is collective security. The security of one cannot come on the expense of the other. The solution to extreme threats must come through collective action and the use of power as a last resort.
Peace is the ultimate security. The modern leader has to be a man or a woman of peace. The world is full of opportunity and without peace it cannot be achieved. A leader must listen to the desires of the people, and the strongest wish is to live and live well. Democratic leadership and peace leadership go hand-in-hand.
The road to achieve these goals is a difficult one and has many obstacles of the old order and old-fashioned mindsets. Therefore, leadership is mostly about courage – civil courage to face constituencies with integrity and honesty, to include them in policy- making, to make the hard and difficult choices and to allow people to belong to an increasingly interconnected world. This is true the world over – from Obama in Washington to Zuma in Pretoria.
The leaders of our region also have to understand that we live in a new era, that if they want their countries to prosper, they must embrace the global change, greater democratization, respect for the individual, economic cooperation, social justice and peaceful coexistence. For that, they need to engage in an honest dialogue with their people on inclusive policies and make courageous decisions on peace.
Israel and its next government are definitely not exceptions.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. This op-ed was edited by Barbara Hurwitz.