Everyone's got something to say about leadership (I guess I'm no exception). We have a crisis of leadership. We need strong, courageous, dedicated leaders who are willing to make tough decisions and guide us out of whatever political/social/economic morass in which we've found ourselves struggling. We need Bill Clinton. We need Billy Graham. We need Preston Manning. Presumably our sudden, desperate need for guidance stems from our inability to think for ourselves.

Aside from being profoundly antidemocratic, our crisis of leadership is untenable. Even if it were possible for one person or one team of people to have all the answers to our society's woes (a highly doubtful proposition in itself), there simply isn't anyone who is morally perfect enough to emerge, unblemished, from the muck of real life and lead us to the promised land. We are all human, which is to say that at times we are all foolish and selfish and greedy and arrogant and insipid. Consequently, none of the leaders which fate or circumstance throw out at us will ever be able to rise up to our expectations.

Democracy is unnatural, in the sense that left to its own devices, a society will tend towards aristocracy or oligarchy. But if 8,000 years of history have taught us anything, it is that when a few people rule a lot of people, things are about to go badly for a lot of people. To speak of a crisis of leadership is to imply that we need to be led, but it remains unclear how we can reverse an 8,000 year trend of self-serving leaders.

An actual, functioning democracy gets around this by more or less doing away with leaders altogether. There are individuals who help to carry out the will of the public, but the onus is taken off them to come up with all the answers and still manage to look great on TV. Of course, our own system, with its emphasis on expert commissions, backroom dealings and shiny political package deals that are ratified once every four years bears little resemblance to this ideal. Keeping in mind that it is an ideal, or an utopia if you prefer, we can nonetheless move much closer to this ideal than we are at present.

So we charge our leaders with the unrealistic goal of knowing what's good for us and solving our problems, and then we become cynical about the political process when they fail to deliver. This failure is partly the result of greed, partly the result of incompetence, and partly the result of ignorance, willful or otherwise.

Of course, the leap of faith required for us to take that leadership into our own hands becomes more daunting when we consider that even the experts can't agree on how to run things. However, experts are more or less by definition ill-suited for democratic leadership. First of all, they feel that their years of schooling makes them authorities on their field of study. This is likely to give them the confidence that they have the solution. Because of their expertise and their possession of the truth, they will be overwhelmingly hostile to criticism, especially from the great unwashed. Hence the erosion of the idea of citizen as participant, and its replacement with the idea of citizen as spectator.

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal