Where have all the true leaders gone?

The world is leaderless. And that makes people scared. Forced to look elsewhere for that rare magic – moral agency.

Current prime ministers and presidents and kingdom bosses behave like little Stalins or headless, Gucci-wearing straw bosses adhered to the outdated Davos Culture Club. It's the legendary leaders of yesteryear that remain the standouts – Mandela, JFK, Lincoln and Gandhi. In Australia, the older population might revere Whitlam, although according to one expert Australia has "never had a truly great prime minister".

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Debates over a divided world at Davos

At the World Economic Forum this week, leaders face an increasingly divided world, with the poor falling further behind the super-rich.

"Lack of leadership" was listed last year as one of the top three areas of concern in the World Economic Forum's 2015 Outlook on the Global Agenda. "The international community has largely failed to address any major global issue in recent years," the outlook found. And more than half the respondents believed their government leaders would abuse their position.

A leaderless world is like walking into a school with no principal, or leaving a child at home with no parents.

Gandhi was different to today's politicians - he was a leader.
Gandhi was different to today's politicians - he was a leader.  

What has happened to cultured, inspired heroes with impact?

In a world of nearly 200 countries, it is disturbing to be unable to name a few good leaders, but quickly identify the bad ones. And yet value-adding leadership has never been more important.


Many world managers still cling to outdated paradigms such as the expectation of world harmony, centralised notions of war, thinking that killing non-combatants to not be killed is a sign of manhood, and blaming terrorism on the US invasion of Iraq.

It's time to adjust, to update. Flesh-and-blood wars have become decentralised, soft targets are in vogue, the world is naturally inharmonious. Cultural differences will always promote violent tensions, and, as anthropologist Scott Atran​ suggests, extremism lies much closer to the bone in "imagined kinships" that deploy at the small group level – through phony friendships, extended family and online networks, rather than from "traditional hierarchical command structures". Even psychologists say fundamentalist violence erupts in individuals who suffer "attachment difficulties" and "early life interruptions", rather than state invasions.

Nelson Mandela, an icon of the struggle against apartheid.
Nelson Mandela, an icon of the struggle against apartheid. Photo: Supplied

In Australia we worry less about our leaders and more about a lack of them.

With a spiralling disparity between politics and the real world, Australians and others have realigned themselves to become the main motors of sociopolitical change. Societies can now choose to ignore (or change) their political leaders because these men and women, with their sunny dispositions and shoulder pads and war medallions, have become in many cases the intellectual enemy.

Many of the world's political elite are ego-driven. Since the early 1990s, the traditional "political party" has become "disconnected from the wider society", the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair wrote, and parties have become "more office-seeking" as "an end in itself".

And don't we know it.

Most of our current leaders are stuck in simplifying assumptions, oblivious to society's rapidly changing needs. Standard deadpan economic and political rhetoric is has-been and immaterial. When will we stop measuring our countries and their leaders exclusively through the grinding social construct of the "economy"? This old-fashioned paradigm is part of a flat political landscape that enables sub-civilisations where strangers rise and co-operate to form ranting groups and where time-worn religious laws resurface in the vacant space left in leaderless vacuums.

Morally fierce leaders are extinct. Instead we have ultra-structuralist line managers engaged in pretend fights, tangled within dense bureaucracies that endorse static terrains, unable to produce evolved outcomes. The neutral, acquiescent politician that explains away problems is cute no more.

World managers must embrace paradigm shifts and be willing to self-update and scientifically deconstruct wars to find out what's really causing them, so that they stop conflict rather than create torn countries. There is a Yiddish saying: "a bad peace is better than a good war".

When presidents and prime ministers are not "leaders" as they should be, they risk enabling subgroups that detach as counterweights to government uber-groups. These subgroups can twist towards anarchy, violent overreactions, mob-making and self-indulged counterfactual arguments that inch society towards ferocity.

This is not to say that parochial leadership is the root of all evil. But it is a causative factor.

Mandela and Gandhi were different to today's politicians. They weren't politicians. They were leaders. They nurtured in their people a sense of personal attachment to the government, they encouraged informed followers instead of supporters, they set long-term ethical agendas, they were self-aware, and unafraid of being seen as vulnerable. And most importantly, they had a "universally conceived humanity" that connected seamlessly with the suffering of others, as Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy​ theorised, making the "overcoming of suffering central to thought and action".

Added to that, today's leaders need perfect scales of justice to separate right from wrong, for there are objective truths: terrorism is a crime, so is genocide, as is killing innocent non-combatants. To contain conflict and improve (all) life on earth, politicians should be measured for their leadership qualities, for their personal biases, emotional intelligence, and perceptions regarding the right to freedom of law-abiding peoples, for the world needs less politicians and more moral agents.

Daphne Haneman is a Brisbane writer.