I’ve done a lot of beach pondering in lockdown. As my feet make their way through the shallow edges of the incoming or outgoing tide, I often find my gaze looking North East across the Pacific Ocean towards the western shoes of the USA- albeit some 12,000km away. The USA holds many personal memories for me having spent six enjoyable and fascinating years there, where I first discovered the work of Jung and the concept of more conscious leadership.
Mental images of my sons, then five and ten year old sons on their first day of school in Rye, New York in the still intense heat of a September morning are as fresh as if it was yesterday; me buried in my little study deep in concentration on yet another assignment for my Master’s degree; kids roller blading in the streets in one scene then me driving to JFK airport on a dark, wet Friday night and hearing on the radio that Barack Obama would be the new President of the USA. It felt like the birth of a new era.
I knew at the time I was listening to history being made. A relatively young African American man would lead the United States. How would he fare? I had been delving deeper and deeper into the essence of leadership development and in parallel, through my consciousness studies, had been pondering if the single point to my existence was perhaps to influence leadership outcomes. We all know that when leadership is done well it positively transforms our organisations and communities for the better. Done poorly it is destructive.
Hence, coming in from my daily beach walk last week and passing the open newspaper on the table, an article entitled Europe asks: What happened to America? stopped me in my tracks. It was by Katrin Bennhold, the Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times and quoted Dominque Mosie, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne : “America has not done badly; it has done exceptionally badly.”
The USA, a country that once prided itself on being the self-appointed “leader of the free world” has indeed not only been void in offering global leadership through the Covid-19 crisis but, as pointed out by Ricardo Hausmann, a directory at Harvard’s Centre for International Development, has been unable to offer national or federal leadership.
Indeed we have watched, sometimes with grim disbelief, as the great capitalist engine, the world’s largest economy, sputtered and shuddered and smoked and its vibrant humming metropolis of New York City, those streets that I spent so many years walking on gazing upward at the skyline, along with many other cities grew… well quiet, and then quieter. Meanwhile the distress of many of its people grew louder. The images of health care workers using rubbish bags and home-made face masks as their PPE will be embedded for a long time.
For those of us who have closely observed the Trump administration’s leadership over the last few years it feels less about the question of how did this happen - and more a confirmation of our greatest fears. Mosi noted that the pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of just about every society but in the United States it has exposed two great weaknesses that “in the eyes of many Europeans have compounded one another”; the erratic leadership of Trump and the absence of a robust public health care system and social safety net. Bennhold poses the question, has America become the wrong kind of power with the wrong kind of priorities? As Mosi indicated “America prepared for the wrong kind of war. It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.”
And its impact has been devastating so much so that we cannot help but look ahead to the future with wonder laced with fear regarding what it holds for us all. One of the fundamental problems with democracy has been that whichever leader gets voted in is trusted to a large degree by their supporters (and to a lesser degree by non-supporters) to have the knowledge and skill to do what is required.
But the real issue seems to be that in the past we have had no true measure of whether someone has the emotional maturity coupled with the intellectual capacity to lead effectively. Leadership research shows consistently that leaders who flourish in situations of extreme complexity have developed a number of specific and measurable characteristics.
The current global situation is one where we have no obvious global leader stepping up to the plate. It is quite an extraordinary situation to be in. A world with no unified and cohesive leadership.
So what if we did it differently? What if the old model of one country’s leader or even a small group of leaders holding absolute global power and influence may have had its day? What if we were to consider a fundamental shift, not just in a leader but how we even consider leadership? Certainly collective leadership has always been written off as “management by committee” – a diluted option. But it doesn’t have to be so. In fact, what I know, from direct experience of facilitating leadership development groups for several years, is that when groups of consciously mature people gather for a specific purpose quite extraordinary collective outcomes arise.
If we were to glimpse into a future that looked very different - in the most positive sense -from the world we know today, two things would have changed:
Leaders would “evolve” and their selection would be based not only on their intellectual capacity but also, equally, on their conscious and emotional maturity. Developmental psychologists have outlined specific markers that capture this e.g. one of the hallmarks of mature leadership is the inability to be pulled into polarised viewpoints.
Economic priorities would no longer supersede all others. While robust global economies and prosperous global trade would remain economic priorities, they would be carefully balanced with equally competing priorities including protecting the environment, protecting human rights, minimising conflict, providing equal access to basic services and eliminating discrimination.
I’m so often reminded that even beyond the grim daily pandemic news there continue to be large pockets of the world where people are living in situations that are insufferable and intolerable. We know too, that it is unnecessary. We currently have within our grasp the opportunity to imagine and create a new world order - something that up until now has never been possible. If Einstein was correct when he commented that “We shall require a substantially new way of thinking if mankind is to survive”, then the path forward for us is incumbent upon those who have the capabilities to lead, doing the work that is required.
And what does it mean to do the work that is required? It means we do everything in our power to continue to grow and evolve our own consciousness including deepening our insight and reflective capabilities, inviting feedback regarding ways we are perceived, gravitating away from polarised ways of being and doing and embracing a meditative practice, no matter how brief.
Longing for a “better” world can easily sound like a very tired cliché but it is, I believe, within our grasp. History has demonstrated that innovation is often birthed out of the darkest times. It would seem that in this instance, our destiny is dependent upon appropriately prepared and capable leaders who are called to inspire, unify and evolve humankind.