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Beware of misleaders who thrive on fear and capitalise on crises

A billboard of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro. Reuters/Stevo Vasiljevic

Beware of misleaders who thrive on fear and capitalise on crises

A billboard of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro. Reuters/Stevo Vasiljevic

We live in a world that romanticises crises. This gives rise to the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues who would have us believe that we need them to lead us through the crisis, to save us, to show us the way.

These are the words of Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English at West Point Military Academy in the United States, who cautions against the pervasive tendency to conflate leadership and crisis. She quotes John Adams (1735 – 1826), an American author, lawyer and the second President of the United States. All that time ago he cautioned against leaders who capitalise on difficult situations to have us believe that our destiny and salvation lies in their hands.

Adams wrote that the United States would not improve until people begin

to consider themselves as the fountain of power. They must be taught to reverence themselves, instead of adoring their servants, their generals, admirals, bishops, and statesmen.

The absence of self-reverence and self-leadership invites a worshipping of not only religious leaders and wartime or warmongering generals, presidents and electoral candidates, but, in the same vein, of so-called captains of industry and of the world’s wealthiest.

A legacy of authors, poets and playwrights – from Frantz Fanon to Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf – have, like Samet, commented on this through the decades, clearly distinguishing leaders from the misleaders. It is time for us to do the same.

The concept of misleaders is eloquently captured by Andre van Heerden in his book “Leaders or Misleaders, the art of leading like you mean it.” He believes the fault lies in our understanding of what leadership is really about. I think he is spot on.

Misleadership is underpinned by fear, lies, corruption and self-interest. Misleaders capitalise on crises and use this as a platform to get into power by promising all sorts of benefits that are never delivered.

Fewer than 10% of leaders today demonstrate the kind of leadership that we should be calling “good” or “effective”, let alone “true” or “great”, he asserts.

True leaders versus misleaders

True or great leadership is underpinned by a heartfelt need, in the first instance, to develop oneself, and in so doing to develop the wisdom, integrity, skills and capacity to help others. As Van Heerden puts it, true or great leadership is about

inspiring people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all.

True or great leaders make a positive difference to people’s lives. They are committed to improving the lives of all people and improving the manner in which we care for the natural environment because this is what sustains us. A strong sense of our shared humanity underlies their actions and in the way they engage with people. They inspire people to be the best they can be, in mutual pursuit of a better life for all.

Misleaders are concerned about becoming the president, prime minister or CEO of a country or company, largely for egotistical, power-mongering reasons. They are all about making a financial fortune to elevate themselves and their cronies or shareholders above everyone else. Rather than acting in the best interest of the organisation, they view the entity as an instrument to serve their own self-interest. There is a distinct lack of acknowledgement of our shared humanity in their actions and in the way they engage with people. They spread fear and set different groups of people against each other.

Samet explains that we often confuse the crisis style of leadership with true leadership that promotes development and peace. True leadership is far more enduring than war-style leadership, and yet it doesn’t win medals or votes.

This is explained in an excellent piece by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker on February 29 2016, titled Shut Up And Sit Down. He refers to Donald Trump’s first official campaign TV advertisement:

The ad features a procession of alarming images – the San Bernardino shooters, a crowd at passport control, the flag of Syria’s Al Nusra Front – designed to communicate the idea of a country under siege. But the ad does more than stoke fear; it also excites, because it suggests that we’ve arrived at a moment welcoming to the emergence of a strong and electrifying leader. (Trump, a voice-over explains, will “quickly cut the head off ISIS – and take their oil.”) By making America’s moment of crisis seem as big (or “huge”) as possible, Trump makes himself seem more consequential, too.

To conclude his piece, Rothman quotes Jacques Lacan, 20th century French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and author who wrote

If a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.

Rothman went on to write: “A sense of perspective may be among the most critical leadership qualities. For better or worse, however, it’s the one we ask our leaders to hide.”

And then we wonder why the billions spent on leadership seminars aren’t producing better leaders.