We are living in an era of some of the most visible and vocal leaders on the planet and feeling the impact, not because they’re particularly good, but because they are fearlessly propagating their views — backed by an array of communication tools that are as unprecedented as they are all-pervasive.
Demagoguery has replaced rational thought, leading to a dangerous surge in nationalism from east to west, the political morass that is Brexit and, in South Africa, the rejuvenated spectre of identity politics. The reasons are myriad, but most come down to the general resentment of publics feeling isolated and impotent in the face of rising economic instability and job insecurity, exacerbated by the growing disruption of almost everything they have taken for granted for many years.
It is, as the latter-day sage Yuval Noah Harari notes, the failures of the great narratives of the 20th century; liberal democracy, socialism and fascism to provide real solutions to a world that is richer than it has ever been before, with less poverty and greater life expectancy — yet paradoxically ever-worsening inequality as witnessed by the Gini coefficient.
Many of these demagogues are regarded by their followers as fearless leaders, speaking a truth otherwise denied them by a system they perceive is calibrated towards an increasingly global agenda, but are these leaders actually fearless? In truth, they are actually the shadow of the Jungian archetype of the fearless warrior, more disposed to bad rather than good because the truest fearlessness comes from confronting your own demons and fully understanding your own motivations and imperfections.
Many of the resolute leaders the world currently has are parodies of fearlessness because the mark of the true leader is not to do something because you can, but to do the opposite because you should. A fearless leader knows their humanity, confronts their own fears, diving in and experiencing them until they are almost overwhelmed and crushed by them, but then emerging stronger and more resolute.
That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for fearless leaders of the negative kind — in times of disaster and transition, but only the great fearless leaders will persist and triumph because of, not despite, the odds. It is they who come back again and again, compelled by a greater purpose whose wellspring lies deep within, which allows them to always be mindful of the consequences of the decisions they make.
The Machiavellian fearless leaders, on the other hand, are a blend of narcissism and vanity, whose leadership always exacts a toll that others must pay. In this case, that price has been the rise of identity politics, the creation of in- and out-groups. There is no science of race, despite Verwoerd’s tireless efforts to the contrary, yet it is particularly this trope that is finding new currency in the new nationalism sweeping the globe underpinning everything from a wall between the US and Mexico (via Colorado) and Britain’s departure from the European Union to increasingly repressive regimes in Turkey and Russia and rising intolerance in South Africa.
Identity politics allows the unscrupulous to create enemies of the out-groups, essentially dehumanising them with potentially catastrophic results; we need think only of the Nazi concentration camps or indeed the crime against humanity that was the legalised discrimination of apartheid. Fear is never about the thing, but the feeling you associate with the thing, but because of that feeling we kill the thing, not the feeling. The snake or the spider doesn’t have to be killed, it’s the fear that makes us do it.
It takes a fearless leader to see through this subterfuge, to recalibrate the debate. The leaders we need will fight for education, for access to health care, for jobs; for a better life for all, but never at the expense of demonising other people. We need to understand that the systems we have are the enemy, not the people. These are systems hard wired to maintain the disparities, aggravating inequality. We need to fight that and narrow the Gini co-efficient — not give in to playing the man and not the ball.
We need to radically transform our economies, which means throwing out the cant of isolationism or of only giving jobs to our nearest and dearest and instead appointing people who don’t look like us, but who are undoubtedly the best qualified for the job, sacrificing the toxic recipe of tokenism and short-termism for the longer-term purpose that instead lays the foundation for a world premised on prosperity not perennial profit for a diminishing elite. But we can only do this together, as a human race, because our futures are all deeply intertwined on this planet that is already so compromised by the lifestyle choices that our generation and the generations that have gone before have made.
To do that, we have to look deeply within and get to know ourselves particularly well — and that’s a journey that requires true fearlessness. Our job as educators is to create those fearless leaders, people who can begin to forge a new path towards a new economy, a more complex and multi-sectoral economy that is as diverse among its players and beneficiaries. We can’t do that with-in and -out groups, we certainly can’t do that with apparently fearless leaders who in truth are actually terrified of their own shadows. The only question is whether we can find those leaders in time to off-set the incredible inter-generational damage that the current demagogues are sowing at the moment.
Fearless leadership is about pulling the big levers. Fearless enough to have a voice. Fearless enough to face your own ego. Fearless enough to step up and be great. Fearless enough to know that you only borrow a position, not own it and one day it will go and you’ll just be you again. Fearless enough to be nothing and have little, fearless enough to fight for a purpose. Fearless enough to be fair even if it means facing up to friends.
When you put it that way, it’s not actually too much to ask. DM