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The most recent global events have made me reflect about the different kinds of leadership that exist. The previous week was riddled with news directly involving the most powerful global leaders. The events that made the news had a personalist character; in addition to the facts, we could discern particular types of leadership that privilege a discourse of polarization and fear as a strategy to recruit followers.
The list of headlines seems endless: the serious institutional crisis in Venezuela, the chemical attack in Syria and the U.S. bombing in response, the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, the victory of the Turkish referendum in favor of President Erdogan, the failed attempt of a missile launch in North Korea, among others.
Behind these events, we find leaders characterized by an impulsive and unilateral way of acting, generating strong tensions with a global impact.
To characterize leadership as positive or negative, I will focus on whether it is polarizing or not. In other words, whether the discourse involves the mobilization of a population’s sector to the detriment of another. Negative leaders promote a zero-sum game, in which they represent the only sector worthy of attention. In the current international context, this can bring dangerous consequences and setbacks at the global level.
The negative leader drags masses by obscuring the path in such a way that those who cross it need someone to hold their hand along the way. They do this through smokescreens and deafening noise that prevents followers from reflecting or making a pause. Their message has an urgent tone, talking about prosecution or enemies on the lookout: we have to make rushed decisions; there is no time to reflect.
The negative leader prevents people from being who they are. He or she takes away from them, making them lose their autonomy and judgement in the face of danger or the enemy. Their voice is amplified through loudspeakers and microphones from stages and even pulpits, and their message resounds with a devastating force in the minds of people.
“... I’m going to protect people. And that’s why whenever there’s a tragedy everything goes up, my numbers go way up because we have no strength in this country, we have weak, sad politicians.” (Donald Trump, affirmation during his presidential campaign)
“A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil in order to protect the lives and well-being of the many who are good.” (Rodrigo Duterte, press release, May 2015)
“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” (quote by Recep Tayyip Erdogan)
On the other hand, positive leadership is based on the defense of ideals and causes, but not at the expense of ignoring those who disagree. Positive leaders can remain silent and light the path so travelers can see where they have to go. They are not only capable of moving someone towards a particular destination, but also of achieving a transformation that allows people to find their way on their own. To do this, they provide tools that make decision-making easier, but trust the freedom of those making them.
In contrast to a negative leader, which is characterized by being powerful and loud, there are thousands, even millions, of leaders that act quietly and despite having a limited scope, are more effective because of their proximity and the influence they can exert on those who trust them.
In my opinion, positive leaders are those who through everyday examples create community. It is those people who through a variety of jobs offer a service, creating and strengthening community ties. They are doctors, firefighters, teachers, social workers, and civil servants. It is the people in the community who believe in the development of all members. Without wanting to romanticize local leadership, I think that people who on a daily basis worry about each other, about their neighbor, regardless of their religion, race, or socioeconomic status, are those people who can counterweight the polarizing discourses that are gaining force internationally.
We face a global collapse, with some even talking about the possibility of a Third World War. This translates to a hopelessness that can only be overcome through local leadership, which through concrete actions on a daily basis restores community ties and prevents the promotion of polarization.
*Ana María Ramírez is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
Photo credit: Khodakrome