Traveling in Europe last week, it seemed as if every other conversation ended with some form of this question: Why does it feel like so few leaders are capable of inspiring their people to meet the challenges of our day? There are many explanations for this global leadership deficit, but I would focus on two: one generational, one technological.
Let’s start with the technological. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 months to 24 months. It has held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and US leaders grappling with their respective crises, I am wondering if there is not a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.
The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We are going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. However, can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?
This sentence jumped out from a Politico piece on Wednesday last week: “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time. Yet at most junctures when they’ve had the opportunity to go big, they’ve chosen to go small.”
Indeed, I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It is the uber ideology of our day.
Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?
And then there is the exposure factor. Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. And, if you’re truly a public figure — a politician — the scrutiny can become so unpleasant that public life becomes something to be avoided at all costs.
Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister, remarked to me recently: “A lot of leaders are coming under massively more scrutiny than ever before. It doesn’t discourage the best of them, but the ridicule and the constant interaction from the public is making it more difficult for them to make sensible, brave decisions.”
As for the generational shift, we have gone from a “Greatest Generation” that believed in save and invest for the future, to a Baby Boomer generation that believed in borrow and spend for today. Just contrast former US presidents George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. The father volunteered for World War II immediately after Pearl Harbor, was steeled as a leader during the Cold War — a serious time, when politicians could not just follow polls — and as US president he raised taxes when fiscal prudence called for it. His Baby Boomer son avoided the draft and became the first president in US history to cut taxes in the middle of not just one war, but two.