Ego vs leadership: restoring the balance
Mr Schwaiger, secretary general Mr Schapiro, Chargé d’Affaires
Mr Kahin Ismail, UNHCR representative Dear students,
Throughout history, the world stage has witnessed the rise and fall of innumerable influential political leaders. Each one of them is related intimately or remotely to the circumstances and the demands of particular periods of history and the ensuing political and societal needs.
Some were the product of ongoing events. Others were themselves the instigators, or the perpetrators of these events. Some leaders rose to the occasion and took up the challenge to lead. Others, to satisfy their bloated ego,
manipulated, contrived and plotted, to create circumstances to bring themselves in positions of leadership.
This is the difference between good leaders, and self-absorbed leaders. The former apply all their strength and knowledge for the attainment of the common good of those who gave them trust to lead them. The latter achieve their ego boost when they find themselves in unassailable positions, exercising full executive powers, and gloating in the adulation of the gullible that were brainwashed in thinking that this was all in their own interests.
Leadership is essential under any type of political system, and in any societal structure, to avoid disorganization, or outright anarchy. This does not mean that any type of leadership is acceptable as long as there is no anarchy. Revolutionary movements that succeeded in removing their leaders have themselves ended up with one or more leaders of that same revolution. Because of its intrinsic nature, human society cannot be leaderless.
In our democratic systems, we somehow choose our political leaders. In today’s
society, however we have to acknowledge that besides the political leaders, who
we send to parliament to represent us, because of the rise and growth in importance of NGOs, civil society organizations, and representative organizations, we have ‘de facto’ numerous leaders, who in their own way can influence even major political or economic decisions. This is participative democracy.
The opposite is the authoritarian, despotic, self-conceited leader, whose main objective after attaining power is to pander to the wishes of the people to maintain popularity and political support. When that fails, there emerge scenarios when power is then maintained by rule of force, coercion, subjugation, and repression.
We all have our ego. So said Freud. And we are all different. It is basically who we are. Ego gives us our drive. It is behind the difference between the courageous, the daring, the motivated, the leaders, and those that are less enterprising, less daring, and have less leadership qualities.
Any leader must have a strong sense of confidence in his capabilities, and an unwavering dedication to, and belief in the cause towards which he leads others.
Too much ego gets in the way of leadership, and could lead to a thwarted perception as to whether one is acting selflessly to be a service to others, or simply to satisfy the cravings of an inflated ego.
History is littered by innumerable examples of all types and degrees of leadership. Democratic political systems and constitutional safeguards are meant to avoid the rise of oligarchs and dictators, who as we have seen throughout history, end up safeguarding their own interests and of those who are close to them, to the complete negation of the rights and privileges, let alone the ‘common good’, of those who would have given them their trust in the first place.
Leadership is not for the faint-hearted. It presupposes a strong sense of self- esteem and also a degree of preparedness for taking on both the expected and the unexpected. A leader has to earn his followers’ trust. This is earned by convincing others of his commitment, his capacity to persuade, and of having a vision. Above all a leader has to be honest both with his assessment of the prevailing situation as well as with his vision of the future.
The classic example is that of the leader who, finding himself thrust into a position to lead a country almost prostrate before an almost invincible enemy threatening invasion, was honest to his people and candidly declared that ‘he had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat’. Besides, a servant leader, having given excellent services to his countrymen, bows out of his role graciously, the moment it is decided that someone else should take the lead.
If we look back in history we will see those leaders who had monuments and memorials put up to commemorate them posthumously by grateful citizens, as well as monuments in stone, and all sorts of other architectural, artistic, ‘landmarks’ left by other leaders themselves during their mandate, obsessed as they were to ensure they will not be forgotten.
If achieving a leadership position at all costs becomes an aim in itself, then ego would have taken over, and the result would be an exercise in egocentric power grabbing.
How does all this reflect in today’s national and international politics?
Politics can easily become subservient to the whims of politicians aspiring for more influence and more power. This has become easier with the use of the modern means of communication, and the professional manipulation of media campaigns.
These so-called leaders are indulging to the expressed wishes of select groups and taking positions that appeal to them and not necessarily to the interests of the majority. More often than not such positions are buffeted by interest groups wielding the necessary financial resources and the means to influence public opinion. This could lead, as it almost always does to the popularization of decisions and policies, that appeal to the masses, but are not necessarily the best policies and the most correct one should have taken under the prevailing circumstances. This is the populism and the nationalism we are seeing sprouting all around us these days.
The present revival of right wing populism, extremist and divisive ideology, and the general lack of empathy, tolerance, and understanding of different views and beliefs, continue to cast a long shadow on the prospects of ever finding equilibrium.
It is becoming more and more evident, and unfortunately common for people craving for power, to climb the ladder of success by capitalising on the popular trends that would be catching the imagination and support of the population. Such trends need not necessarily be the best or the most rational, logical or equitable, but being simply trends that appeal to the interests of narrow- mindedness, short-sightedness, and above all to those who have a short term approach to political issues.
Such leaders can easily find ways and means to fire the people’s imagination to follow his egoistic aspirations under the guise of “the national interest”, thus expanding one’s ego to become the “national ego”.
This could be dangerous in foreign policy decisions, where a lot of give and take normally occurs to reach agreements or consensus in bilateral or multilateral negotiations. In this international context, the question of ego vs leadership, and the behaviour traits associated with both, could very well be transposed to countries and not only individual leaders.
Adhering doggedly in entrenched positions taken allegedly “in the national interest” and ignoring or defying any attempts at some form of compromise, leads to situations where adhering to the expressed will of the leader becomes the ultimate objective.
This is not leadership. This is what is bringing on so many worrying development in national and world politics.
How can one avoid or mitigate the situation if such developments occur?
During this meeting you will be discussing a number of topics that have a lot to do with the harm egoistic leaders have done or are doing, to international politics: corruption in power, persecution of minorities, climate migration, rise of fundamentalist groups, authoritarian regimes.
Behind all this, there is the spectre of someone’s iron fist and the suppression of normal democratic measures that would otherwise challenge the right and the pretentions of whoever obtains power primarily to satisfy his ego.
Democracy is the only tool one can use to remove such dangerous persons from leadership position. Obviously if the democratic instruments, such as free press, courts of law, parliament, elections etc. Would not by the time one needs then have already been suppressed.
This yearning is evident in many countries in the wave of pro-democracy protests and for free elections one sees happening practically every day. In a number of other countries, which could be worse off, unfortunately not even that expression of the yearning to have proper leadership is allowed.
Your presence here today and your active participation in this exercise in the coming days, is an opportunity to discuss and reflect on how much the leadership skills of selflessness, critical thinking, reflection, humility, gratitude, and a strong sense of servitude, should be reinjected into the egos of all those who wish to take over leadership positions, especially in diplomacy and in international and national politics.
Do not hesitate to be critical of what is happening in the world around you.