I have announced as my title “Leadership in a Democracy: What It Takes Morally.” The subject of leadership in a democracy demands that we look first, of course, at political leadership. I’ll spend the first portion of my talk on that question. But it also demands that we not stop there because power wielders are not confined to those who win elections or secure appointments to government office. The flourishing of a democracy also requires public-spirited leaders among the movers and shakers in the marketplace and in the professions. I’ll spend the last half of my talk on the question of leadership in that setting, not simply leaders in the public sector.
Regrettably, we must acknowledge today that politics is a despised profession. Ironically, the entire world needs good political decisions coming out of the United States at a time when Americans have scorn for politics as a vocation, and this scorn turns up variously. In ordinary talk, the words “politician” and “bureaucrat” send off negative charges like static electricity crackling off cheap clothing. The word “politician” resounds with the opportunistic, the personally ambitious, the glad-handing and the under-handed, the over-promising, especially during campaigns, and then the under-performing. These negative signals multiply still further when we qualify the noun “politician” with the adjective “professional.” Now, of course, normally the adjective “professional” tends to heighten status. We signal our respect by musicians, actresses, doctors or accountants when we call them professional in their behavior, but not always politicians. The professional politician has merely picked up all the tricks of a somewhat grubby craft. And bureaucrats, the permanent employees of government, fare little better. We often write them off as officious, rigid, by-the-book paper shufflers, time-servers. They seem distant from the human condition and unresponsive to human need.
Now, the political system itself generates some of this contempt for politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians tear the bark off one another in the course of electoral campaigns. Deeper than their self-inflicted wounds, politicians and bureaucrats suffer from an ideological and sometimes religious suspicion of government that uncuts them from many quarters. The old Marxist revolutionary left discredited government on the grounds that it merely enforced the interests and power of the property classes. The student protestors of the ‘60s condemned government as a military industrial complex up to no good on foreign soil. From the opposite extreme, the far right in the ’50s viewed government as infiltrated and corrupted by Communism. In the ’80s and ’90s, the talk show right opposed government as if it were a foreign power, a vestigial remain, if you will, of King George III – not our government; an instrument of national purpose.
And still other groups – economic libertarians. They don’t wholesale repudiate government. They’re willing to see the government engage in three activities: the Fire Department, the military, and the Police Department, because the economic libertarian is interested in the protection of property and liberty. If you begin to talk about other functions of government related to basic human needs, other than security, and related to the higher flourishing of a culture, they begin to worry about any of these activities as illegitimate. And the dismissive term with regard to basic goods is that they’re engaged in a kind of Robin Hood activity at work in Sherwood Forest. Or again, up in my part of the world, there is, of course, Ross Perot. If you think about his phrase “just lift up the hood and fix it” woefully underestimated the complicated demands of government. “Just lift up the hood and fix it” as though the President is a kind of mechanic. With one hand he’s under the car trying to fix it, but with the other he’s trying to raise the money in order to be able to stay in office and ward off another mechanic. He has two huge bodies contesting his work or a Supreme Court reviewing his activities, and so forth. His phrase “just lift up the hood and fix it” was a colossal repudiation of all the complications of constitutional government in the United States, the division of powers, and all the complexities that political leaders have to cope with.
Also adding to our contempt for government, of course, the media today have contributed to popular score and for government, less through their hostility to particular politicians than through their cumulative redefinition of the active citizen into a passive onlooker. Once you take that point of view that the citizen is not really responsible because they’re Hoover depression and Roosevelt wars and we are simply observers of all that, inevitably you have, of course, reduction of government to entertainment in the Coliseum, with citizens up there on the bleachers watching what is going on, the proceedings. Politics deteriorates into a blood sport: Who’s winning? And the media lock on freefalling scandal more readily than on tangled information that might help citizens reach complex political judgments.
Citizenship is the art of deliberating and acting in concert with others for the common good. By the way, that’s why Perot’s electronic democracy had it all wrong. His thought was you gather up private opinion from many sources and then the leader makes the decisions. That’s not what even participatory democracy was in the United States. Participatory democracy was that circumstance where citizens got together and deliberated to one another, so you don’t have all lines moving upward towards the leader who controls the information that comes on the basis on private judgment. Citizens have to talk to one another and their private views and preferences get transformed into a kind of public, deliberative process. They become public judgments and that makes it much harder for a leader to lead. Our modern, fortuitous concatenation of spectators does not readily make up a body of citizens capable of identifying, discerning and accepting responsibility for the work of effective political leaders.
Now, the second move in my talk is to talk about types of leadership. For want of a better term, let’s summarize types of leadership by appealing to four cities. That would be my shorthand way of getting at four types of leadership. Four cities symbolize four different types of leadership, at least in the West: Jerusalem, Sparta, Athens, and Florence.
Let’s start with Jerusalem. The founder of Jerusalem, King David, symbolized leading by charisma. Maybe I don’t have to say anything about charisma. I’ve heard Ernesto Cortez in the past, and that word “charisma” is over-used, but he is what I would call a charismatic leader. I don’t know if he had a bad day here, but in the times that I’ve heard him, there was a man with real eloquence and capacity for leadership that radiated from him as a human being. At any rate, the founder of Jerusalem, King David, symbolized this kind of leadership. David was a man of transcendent gifts and charm, a poet, a musician, a great strategist, a sometime adulterer and betrayer of his men, but also the founder of a nation and the prototype for a personal, kingly rule.
Now, American democracy rejected this notion of personal charismatic leadership. George Washington didn’t want to be a king, and the founders agreed. They insisted on a government – the phrase, of course, was “of laws, not men.” The oil of charisma anointed a few of our Presidents. Think of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR. However, on a somewhat sad counterfeit of charismatic leadership shows up today: the very interesting modern category of the celebrity. Instead of the hero’s deeds, we get a People Magazine glitz and a disposition to limit presidential candidates to those who pass the camera test for office. Charisma today tends to plummet down into the living room test of likeability.
The second great city I will address, ancient Sparta. A military society symbolized the second type of leadership; that is, leadership by command. Not the pull of charisma but by the authority of command. Military leaders do not need to use many words. Sparta was a society, in the phrase of one historian – I think it was a book written back about 1905, 1906, and I haven’t been able to track it down since I read it; I think this man died when he was about 26 or 27 years of age. But he had a wonderful phrase. He said, “Sparta was a society given to taciturnity. It depended upon the bark of command and the grunt of obedience.” Leaders of the Spartan type abhor the messy give-and-take of political compromise. They prefer the clarity of military confrontation to the shifting waters of political coalitions. They prize hierarchy. Today we still partly depend on such leadership. Our President is Commander in Chief, and corporations depend heavily on command, after all. However, executive command is not the whole of leadership, not in a democracy.
So a third city, Athens, symbolizes a third type of leadership, by persuasion. Athens relied on logos or rhetor; that is, the word or the art of persuasion. Democracies are inherently wordy. A Parliament is literally a house of words. The American presidency may no longer be a bully pulpit but it does have to be a bully blackboard to the nation. The President must lead by persuasion. You can’t lead for long – you can’t even command the armed forces for long – unless you bring the people along. And that lesson was brought home forcibly, was it not, in the Vietnam War. Now, of course, teaching and persuading, which is what Athens was all about, don’t always take rhetorical form. Upon the death of the master rhetorician, FDR, people winced at the speeches and flat-voice of his prosaic Midwestern successor, Harry Truman. But Truman supplied the country with a series of wise decisions in the aftermath of the War, the Marshall Plan for Europe heading the list. And in my book, that decision was the most important decision in foreign policy made since World War II. It wasn’t the jacking up of our military in the ’80s that led to the eventual receding of Communism as a power in the modern world. It was that basic decision made by Truman on the advice of his Secretary of State to take money to build up European cities so that they would have a significant future. And what is fascinating about that decision is that it was a decision that was made where you could not see the results, the good results of that decision, for 10 years.
I’ll never forget, in the ’68 campaign, that Hubert Humphrey talked about our need for a Marshall Plan for our cities, but that was a time of great impatience in American life and you couldn’t imagine people committing themselves to decisions, the payoff for which would not be visible for 10 years, because we lived by quarterly reports. It’s very hard to get people convinced and committed to those decisions, the results of which may not show up for a long time. The marketplace lives on one clock. It’s the quarterly clock. There’s also an agricultural clock. I think universities tend to run on agrarian time rather than industrial time.
I had to establish a Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU, and some people who were patrons for this wanted big public events that would draw the attention of the outside community, but I felt SMU has enough celebrities coming to speak. I wanted to see that money committed and I said this to my patron: that if you put a camera on it, you wouldn’t see it because you’re talking about a growth that is working at a different pace. But it meant commissioning some of our faculty members, in a too often unhonored faculty, to give talks on ethics turned into occasional papers; commit faculty members to summertime to build ethics into their courses, even though they were not professional ethics teachers. Well, I remember Sam Johnson’s statement: “We’re all moralists perpetually, geometers only by chance.” I mean, if ethics depends only on the expertise of people in philosophy and religion, you don’t get as far in ethics in a university curriculum as you need to because you’ve got to get other of the faculty thinking morally about the issues generated in the setting of their departments and schools.
Well, you get the point. You need a form of leadership that doesn’t simply speak well and glowingly, with the magic voice of an FDR, the radio voice, but you also need leaders who make the right kind of decisions. And by the way, that takes a kind of courage and perseverance to live by those decisions because the payoff may not be immediate, and that is one reason for the revival of interest in Harry Truman in these days, is it not. Good decisions and legislation have a way of tutoring a nation. A leader need not always be a Jefferson, a Lincoln, a Teddy Roosevelt, in order to teach well.
Well, as symbols, these three ancient cities don’t highlight an important fourth ingredient for political leadership that inevitably has to be introduced into the discussion, that Machiavelli knew so well. Politics also requires the rough and tumble of bargaining, maneuvering and manipulating upon which political survival and accomplishment often depend. To the three ancient cities, therefore, we need to add a fourth. In addition to Jerusalem, Sparta and Athens, we’ve got to include in our list Florence and its successor cities the world over, run by princes and ward bosses well acquainted with the power of self-interest in human affairs. In addition to charming, commanding and persuading, political leaders must also bargain, manipulate and maneuver.
Now, at a minimum, of course, political leadership needs a balance between the two cities of Florence and Athens. I borrow here from Reinhold Neibur. He was a theologian but he was also a great political theorist; those of you who have read him know that. Politicians underestimate humankind if they do not appeal to the image of God within us; that is, our capacity for reason. However, they overestimate humankind if they neglect the darker side of human nature, the power of self-interest in human affairs. And Machiavelli was good on that point. Just so, presidents surely must bargain, manipulate and maneuver their constituencies. And it would be a species of Angelism about human nature to deny them the strategy of leading through bargaining. At the same time, effective presidents must address what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
But of course, to teach – because that’s what I was talking about when I talked about Athens – to teach, leaders need access to the place where they have a chance to persuade. In ancient Athens, that site was the marketplace to which leaders had access without fee. But in the modern United States, the place to which leaders need access is the television station, and the ticket of admission to TV is simply astronomical. Money calls the shots for both political parties today: over a billion dollars in the ’96 election and much more in 2000. Given the high price of political access today, we use words differently, no longer words put together in extended argument designed to catch all the factors that count in a complex political judgment, but words now diced down and designed not to persuade but to manipulate, pure and simple. Thus, money today threatens to corrupt not simply leaders but, of course, political discourse.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about the word “leading” and I’m sure you have across a couple of days. Let me put simply a few words about it. The task of leading in a democracy differs from managing. The manager, whether working for the government or a corporation, tends to operate with preset goals. And so you have the custodial responsibility of, within the parameters of preset goals, husbanding resources in order to maneuver yourself towards those ends at the least cost to the institution and enterprise of which you are a part. There is a custodial dimension to managing. The political leader faces, and any leader faces, the more difficult task of choosing goals, not just operating within preset objectives. Leadership usually entails breaking new ground, whether in the cause of transforming or in the cause of consolidating a community. Leadership poses the vexing questions of destination: What is ethics? Is it the pursuit of ends, the pursuit of the right end, the right pursuit of ends? That is what leading is all about, thank you very much proctologists. It regards the wise choice of goals the culture has not entirely preset and the means to them about which further serious differences of judgment may exist.
Now, why do we make this contrast between leading and managing? Well, leading, in its root as a word, as I recall, literally means “going.” But going where? Into the X of the future. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, had a very interesting phrase in Sein und Zeit, his great work on being in time. He referred to fürlauffen. It’s a lovely phrase. It literally means “running ahead of yourself.” And when we think about that English word “anticipation,” that’s what we’re talking about. You’re both here today but you’re running ahead of yourself, anticipating what’s going to be your responsibility tomorrow. It all related to what the Existentialists called the threefold temporal ecstasy of human existence. Unlike the beast, we can retrieve the past. We go behind ourselves in to the past, which gives us heritage and legacy and all the complications of heritage, legacy and tradition. But not only do we go behind ourselves in to the past and constantly engage in reinterpreting that past as we age – it happens
to all of us – but we also run ahead of ourselves into the future. That’s fürlauffen. That is going ahead into the X, into the unknown. And then third, plunging ourselves into the present in the light of our interpretations of the future and our interpretations of the past. And of course, that’s a very complicated undertaking.
The first virtue required in the leader is practical wisdom, or what we might call today “discernment.” In order to know what to do, leaders must take in what is out there. I was much helped by a philosopher named Joseph [Pieper] on this whole question of practical wisdom. He talked about prudence as the cardinal of the cardinal virtues. You know there are four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. But when push comes to shove, for human beings the cardinal of the cardinal virtues is prudence.

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