By Donella Meadows
–February 11, 1988–
“Leadership,” the Presidential candidates are saying again and again and again. “You can count on me for strong leadership.”
Leadership is a perfect word for a campaign. It sounds wonderful, it requires no concrete promises, and no one is quite sure what it means. Whatever it is, we are supposed to want it, and to want it strong. No wimps, no weak leaders for us.
Campaign rhetoric plays to our feelings, not our minds, and I can find within myself a feeling of desire for strong leadership. It’s a feeling from childhood, a yearning for parental protection, so I can sleep safely at night. It’s a feeling from high school when it was important for my team to be the winning team and for my friends to be — to appear to be, anyway — unflappable, invulnerable and not ordered around by anybody. As adolescents we needed strong leadership to provide the personal confidence and independence we couldn’t yet generate for ourselves.
But when I’m called upon to cast a vote for a leader who will be handed more power by our votes than is wielded by any other human being on earth, then it’s time to grow up. When I do that, I think the last thing I want is a President who is a strong leader.
As the candidates fling the phrase “strong leadership” around, they apparently mean an ability to make things happen, to push people and institutions into motion, to get an agenda accomplished, to “deal with Congress” and “stand up to the Soviet Union”. Now I certainly want my President to do those things, but I care HOW he does them.
One can make things happen with charm, inspiration, persuasiveness, persistence, commitment, plain flat stubbornness, deception, corruption, threat, or brute force. The undeniably strong leader currently in the White House uses all of the above with great skill. Another tool for getting things done, which we haven’t seen much in the past seven years, is straight information — the presentation of compelling facts that make the reasons for action obvious. Charm, inspiration, persuasiveness, persistence, commitment, and facts are fine with me. Stubbornness, deception, corruption, threat, and force are the tools of dictators, strong leaders every one of them, and not the kind of leader I want at all.
Making things happen is just half of leadership. The other half is knowing what to make happen. The candidates who claim to be strong leaders are not so clear, most of them, about what they would lead us TOWARD. Some promise to lead toward different things when they are in liberal Iowa than they do when they are in conservative New Hampshire — which indicates to me that they aren’t leaders at all, but followers, or panderers. The two candidates who are most consistent about the goals of their leadership are the two who are preachers, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, and they would lead us in very different directions.
It isn’t easy to find the right direction to lead an enormous, diverse, quarrelsome country like this one. We are divided into factions, each pushing for what is best for its members only, each ready to oppose mightily any leader who veers from its preferred direction even by a compass point or two. Yet we know that none of those factional directions can be the right one. The right direction can’t favor just business or just labor, just blacks or whites, just the environment or the economy, the cities or the farms, the rich or the poor, the Arabs or the Jews. It has to be a direction that is good for the totality. The first task of a great — as opposed to a strong — leader would be to bring us to see ourselves as a totality.
Where is the candidate who is promising that kind of leadership? I’ve been listening closely, and I hear only one who even hints at envisioning himself as a leader for all the people in the nation — and there are days when, in the excitement of our factionalism, he too loses that vision. My friends tell me not to vote for him, because he can’t be elected. They used to say that he couldn’t be elected because he is black. Now they say that he can’t be elected because he isn’t a strong enough leader, in the sense of being able to get things done.
I suppose my friends are right. America wants a strong (and male and white) leader, though there is plenty of evidence that nothing in all nature is more dangerous than a male of the human species who thinks he has to prove that he is strong.
I’m not looking for strong leadership. I’m looking for compassionate leadership, well-informed leadership, honest, hard-working, flexible leadership. Above all, I’m looking for wise and unifying leadership
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988