The interplay between leaders and their publics in a democracy is always complex. A leader who confines himself to the experience of his people in a period of upheaval purchases temporary popularity at the price of condemnation by posterity, whose claims he is neglecting. A great leader must be an educator, bridging the gap between his visions and the familiar. But he must also be willing to walk alone to enable his society to follow the path he has selected.
There is inevitably in every great leader an element of guile which simplifies, sometimes the objectives, sometimes the magnitude, of the task. But his ultimate test is whether he incarnates the trust of his society’s values and the essence of its challenges.
-Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy
Among my colleagues, I see future Members of Parliament, future international civil servants, future directors of organizations, future authors of acclaimed publications, future corporate executives, and the list goes on. In short, we are the next generation which will be taking over the reins of responsibility and power in the next ten or fifteen years. While many of us will see our talents and qualities finally put to good use, all our flaws and mistakes may also be amplified when we are in greater positions of leadership. Ideals and principles change with time and experience, such that I worry whether we will still keep that same vision of the good to which all our efforts and education have been purposed.
This passage from Kissinger quiets the doubts and fears that I feel both for myself and others concerning our future responsibilities. We are encouraged to have a vision, an informed one and one that understands the complexities of democratic freedoms and liberties. Our thoughts on the possible are not constrained, but we are rather inspired to think big and think long term legacy. We are called to a role of enlightenment (though often a principle hard to pursue), whether we build on the lessons from the past and contribute to progress by moral, technological, and economic improvement (among other kinds of qualitative human progress). At the same, our flawed human nature gives us the wisdom to know our limitations when it comes to the great tasks of history and here, we are called to embody the values and challenges placed upon our shoulders.
However, Kissinger is quite ominous when he speaks of the solitary nature of leadership. The burden of power is a heavy one, especially when we must preserve it from corruption and banal influences. To pursue the path less travelled by may make all the difference, but at what cost? What principles are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals? What goals will you give up to preserve your principles? What kind of world or country do you want to live in? Is the status quo enough? Will you go the extra mile? Will you be up to the task if you are called unexpectedly to the ranks of leadership?
Perhaps such musings are naïve and cliché, invoking a sort of elitist arrogance and ivory tower exceptionalism, but it’s worth a shot to urge my colleagues to seriously consider what kind of leader they will be. The attitude is that we’ll worry about the responsibility of leadership only when we get there. We’ve spent so much time living in the present and just surviving to the next midterm, paper, or work project, that sometimes we lose sight of that overarching vision that people like Roosevelt, Thatcher, Gandhi, Churchill, Gorbachev, and even Mulroney had. A confidence and certainty in self identity and a multi-faceted view of others is a good start to grounding leadership abilities. Taking the time to fine tune your worldview is not a bad idea, nor reading history or the great philosophers to build up a sort of apologetics for your beliefs and principles. Fortunately, I have every confidence that my friends will be up to the challenge when the opportunity presents itself and on that day, my hope will be that the world now rests in capable hands.