We live in a time of constant media coverage. Nothing can be said or done on stage without public knowledge through the news, and if no journalist is around then the news is spread by civil society on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, WeChat and a myriad of other social media platforms.
At this time, it is sad to see the contemporary lack of leadership in both the public and business sectors. Where are the charismatic orators of the past? Where are the Roosevelt’s, Churchill’s, Thatcher’s? Philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Georg Henrik von Wright? Where did unique personalities like Gandhi and Mandela go? Or if we look further back, imagine how a Caesar or Bismarck could lead the EU to consensus and prosperity, or how a new Peter the Great could finally lead modern Russia to reforms and modernisation?
As there is a war in Ukraine, civil war in Syria and terror in many other Middle East countries, rising inequality in United States, open corruption hampering development in Africa, business ethics floundering, and not the least normal human care in families and society at large increasingly falling apart, where did the good-hearted, public leadership go?
Several of today’s leaders are visionary, many possess noble values and the ability to manage severe disruption. But there is one key quality that is too important to disregard, and missing in many of today’s most powerful people. Personally, I think about it and have tried to encompass it as the quality of purpose. According to Claudio Cocorocchia at the World Economic Forums Global Leadership Fellows Programme, the right quality is meaningfulness.
According to Cocorocchia, some of history’s most prominent and talented leaders had a larger picture in mind than their own personal or movements goals. Napoleon Bonaparte’s regard for social equality spurred him to design the Napoleonic Code of legal reforms. Abraham Lincoln’s mission to end slavery in the United States and reunite the country was a fundamental pillar of his leadership. Almost 100 years later, Martin Luther King continued Lincoln’s legacy, becoming the voice of the African-American people crying out for racial equality
In my job as consultant, I often talk about the importance of having a vision. However, having meaningfulness is different from having a vision. Vision inspires action, but meaningfulness is the bedrock behind that action. A vision can be designed and constructed. A vision can be borrowed and made yours. A vision does not necessarily need to come from a leader’s heart and soul, but meaningfulness does. In this sense Cocorocchia´s definition is better than my own thoughts on “purpose”, as meaningfulness is the synergy between heart and soul, and you either have it or you don’t.
As a human being, is it possible to be meaningful and also happy? I think being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. Satisfying one’s needs and wants increases happiness but is largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.
Happiness is largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. Happiness is more linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness goes with being a giver rather than a taker.
In many ways, our conceptions of leadership are shaped by the zeitgeist of our times. Leadership in the 20th century was largely defined in the context of public leaders or large, hierarchical, industrial organisations leaders. How will our conception of leadership evolve in the 21st century? It feels almost like leadership through the increasingly selfish “me, me, me” generation has become collectivised, and major trends and directions are now shaped by collective opinions, rather than through strong, outspoken leaders taking a stand from their heart and soul and leading from the front.
Maybe personal leadership in the 21st century is about how you lead yourself in your own life? Maybe it is about the decisions you make and the actions you take from your own heart and soul, whether people are watching or not? Maybe it is about learning to trust your own actions so that others can learn to trust you?
So in an age where religion and ideologies no longer show us the way, and when selfishness seems to be a new mantra, how can we find a path to live a full life without stepping on or hurting others, instead in meaningful ways acting and winning respect as collective leaders?
I think it is about developing the habit of doing the ethically right thing all the time, even when it causes you inconvenience, expense, embarrassment or short-term pain (which can equal less short term happiness), and, I think, it is above all to take other people and their well-being into account in actions we take.
Consistency, to not waver from decisions, to not on purpose hurt other people, to be a bedrock of stability, that can make a purpose- and meaningful life, and inspire others to do the same.