How we were led through the noughties

How was the world led through the decade? Wisdom, power or might? (from zadek.wordpress.com)
Simon Zadek
4 January 2010

Just days into the second decade of the millenium. A proliferation of learned and witty articles reflecting backwards and predicting forwards grace the pages of every media portal. Much has happened in this opening decade, in fact so much that it is hard to know where to start or how to judge what history will find important. Al Qaeda has become a household name, but will it’s dark record and call to arms even be remembered in another decade. Surely history will score high the US’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, or will this be overshadowed by the longer-term implications of the cat and mouse game with Iran over its nuclear programme and Israel’s steady drift beyond the pale. Or will such politics prove trivial in the face of  the amazing developments in biology and genetics that could mark out the decade’s contribution.

Tomorrow’s history is a fickle judge, both in what it chooses and what or who’s story it picks to tell the tale.

One lens through which history can be viewed or predicted is that of leadership, who we have applauded and for what. And we do make some curious choices. Jut take a look at the list of the most important 100 leaders offered by Time Magazine. Time chose for its man of the year in 2004 George W. Bush “For sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively), for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his ten-gallon-hat leadership style and for persuading a majority of voters that he deserved to be in the White House for another four years”. And after a smarter moment in selecting Bono and the philanthropic Gates-duo, Time continued its tilt towards (our) madness by selecting, in 2007 Vladamir Putin as person of the year, arguing his importance rather than his likability or ethics. Europe meanwhile finally succeeded where would-be continental presidents from Napoleon to Hitler had failed (by the way, Times chose Adolf as man of the year in 1938) in annointing Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first “president of Europe”. And in 2008, Times annointed Mr Obama as man of the year, slipping in just a month before the American people decided on the same guy as their next president, and barely a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his plans, potential or at least aspirations for making a difference.

Now the Nobel Prize list for the decade looks very different from Time magazine’s, which is rather parochial in tending towards choosing Americans and the world’s more obvious, generally fairly machismo, leaders. Nevertheless, three out of ten peace prize winners over the last decade were (deservedly but still wildly disproportionately) from the US, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and of course Barak, with non-US folks including some other really great choices such as Kofi Annan (2001) and Mohammad Yunus (2006).

Kofi Annan is also a member of another important leadership group, The Elders, self-described as “an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity”. I must say, despite the rather cliche name, this is an extraordinary group of people, who in fact are far more than ‘thinkers’ as amazing, risk-taking ‘doers’, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Ela Bhatt, and Mary Robinson.

Juxtaposed to the Elders self-effacing manner are this generation’s business leaders. Business leaders, especially those running global corporations, have become international statesman and stateswomen, shaping culture, economy and politics, and making life and death decisions over the fate of communities in the name of, and with legal accountability to, their shareholders. Whether history will recognise them, some have provided real leadership over this decade, such as Anita Roddick, the ground-breaking founder of The Body Shop, Ratan Tata, Lord John Browne, and more recently Jeff Immelt. Despite these and other exceptions, history will mark this decade as a low point in peoples’ trust of its business leaders. An opinion poll in the US (the home of business where distaste for governments pervades) revealed for one of the first times greater trust for politicians than business leaders. And perhaps not surprisingly. Whilst not fairly all tarred with the same brush of arrogance and greed, Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ Chairman and Chief Executive, somehow captured their untimely self-image by declaring his and his colleagues huge bonuses as being a legitimate reward for doing ‘god’s work‘. By any financial measure save for the returns to illicit trade in drugs, arms and people, executives from the financial sector have certainly led us forward over the last decade. The Wall Street Journal, in an unusually sheepish article, predicted bonus payouts in the U.K. financial sector to rise to US$9.82 billion) in 2009 up 50% from a year earlier but, it hastened to point out, well below the 2007 peak.

Social entrepreneurship has emerged in the last decade as the touchstone of ‘true leadership’, blending Schumpeter’s animal spirit of entrepreneurs with the saintly aspirations more traditionally associated with the tranquility of priesthood. Wangari Maarthai, awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, would figure high on many lists of this decade’s social entrepreneurs. But the vast majority of such folks are unsung heroes, often vilified and persecuted by their own communities, or simply ignored and buried by history’s short-sighted authors. Bill Drayton, the Founder and President of Ashoka, is the single most important source of this narrative and its explosion onto the world’s stage, and is responsible for surfacing many of tomorrow’s unsung heroes whose success might be improved through validation today. But many others have nurtured and validated this leadership model, including the powerful Latin American network, Avina Foundation, founded by the Swiss billionaire, Stephan Schmidheiny.

The 18th December 2009 in Copenhagen was meant to be the decade’s, and some would say, history’s greatest leadership moment. On that day, the world’s political leaders, watched in their every move by civil, labour and business leaders, gathered to agree on a collective pathway to manage climate in humanity’s common interest. Instead, they demonstrated their, or perhaps more aptly our, inability to handle the complexity of the moment. Whilst we might blame some of the individual leaders who participated in this sorrowful spectacle, history will take a more structural view of the driving forces behind this Babylonian nightmare.

Most of all, perhaps, history will mark the Copenhagen event, and indeed this decade, as the moment when we moved into a period of truly multi-polar leadership. The evolving significance of the G20, the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy, newly-minted power configurations such as the BASIC nations, and venues such as the World Economic Forum, all point to a period of turmoil where who governs, how and with what legitimacy and impacts is up for grabs. The global climate deal process was the perfect storm that outed this emergent pattern, but certainly did not cause it, and cannot be understood at all as a stand alone experience.

History is likely to view this, and perhaps the next few decades, as a chaotic, transition period. New global actors seeking to define their leadership roles individually and collectively, and how best to play them out. Existing political institutions and ideological assumptions and norms will creak and groan under the pressure, and in some instances fracture and collapse. Experimentation in new governance approaches will proliferate, with the difference between state and non-state variants becoming increasingly blurred and perhaps even irrelevant.

Personal leadership over this period will become a vital element in guiding and stabilising the ‘Great Transition‘, all the more so as the legitimacy of institutions are increasingly questioned, and the sanctity of political norms about individual and collective rights are placed under enormous, and in some instances fatal, pressure. Looking back on this decade’s celebrated leadership, I can only hope that next decade’s leaders will find ways to blend the wisdom and mobilising forces of the Elders with the brutal power of the likes of Messrs Putin and Blankfein and the will to invent and innovate of Mr Drayton’s social entrepreneurs.

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