Wednesday 27 June 2012

The rise of popularism

By Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 23 Jun 2012

TRAVELLING in Europe recently, 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'd focus on two: one generational, one technological.

Let's start with the technological. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore posited Moore's Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months.

It has held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and US leaders grappling with their respective crises, I'm wondering if there isn't 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're going from largely one- way conversations - top-down - to overwhelmingly two-way conversations - bottom-up and top-down. This has its upside: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But 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 recent Politico piece: '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 recently: 'Popularism.' It's 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 film-maker.

When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and film-maker, 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.

Australia's former foreign minister Alexander Downer 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've 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 president George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush. The father volunteered for World War II immediately after Pearl Harbour, was steeled as a leader during the Cold War - a serious time, when politicians couldn't 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.

When you have technologies that promote quick short-term responses and judgments, and when you have a generation that has grown used to short-term gratification - but you have problems whose solutions require long, hard journeys, like today's global credit crisis or job shortage or the need to rebuild Arab countries from the ground up - you have a real mismatch and leadership challenge.

Virtually all leaders today have to ask their people to share burdens, not just benefits, and to both study harder and work smarter just to keep up. That requires extraordinary leadership that has to start with telling people the truth.

Dov Seidman, author of the book titled How - whose company advises CEOs on leadership - has long argued that 'nothing inspires people more than the truth'. Most leaders think that telling people the truth makes that leader vulnerable - either to the public or their opponents. They are wrong.

'The most important part of telling the truth is that it actually binds you to people,' he explains, 'because when you trust people with the truth, they trust you back'. Obfuscation from leaders just gives citizens another problem - more haze - to sort through. 'Trusting people with the truth is like giving them a solid floor,' he adds. 'It compels action. When you are anchored in shared truth, you start to solve problems together. It's the beginning of coming up with a better path.'

That is not what we're seeing from leaders in America, the Arab world or Europe today. You'd think one of them, just one, would seize the opportunity to enlist their people in the truth: about where they are, what they are capable of, what plan they need to get there and what they each need to contribute to get on that better path. Whichever leader does that will have real 'followers' and 'friends' - not virtual ones.

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