This week’s article is written by Lord John Alderdice, a sitting member of the House of Lords. It is a companion to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Finding Peace When in Conflict that aired on Tuesday, February 8th, 2022.
The unfolding of leadership over history brings us to a point in the arc of time where we as leaders have a fundamental choice about the role of leadership. First, leaders need to identify where their loyalty lies. Are they loyal to the past, in which case they will continue to recreate the conflicts of history well into the future? The second choice is loyalty to the future they want to create for their children. In the second option, leaders decide how to resolve conflicts of the past to create a future for their children that is more peaceful and equitable.
Let’s take a look at how leadership evolved.
Leadership has never been an entirely straightforward business, but arguably it is even more complex these days than in previous times. Until the advent of a degree of democracy, initially in the Christian Church through the Reformation and then more widely in society following from the Revolutions in America and France, leaders were recognized, appointed, or took power by physical force. The mass of people generally accepted that some people would be leaders, but most would be followers without much say in the matter. Even with the emergence of democracy, leadership was restricted and those who occupied the positions were accepted as meriting regard, if not affection. This seems to have changed as the nineteenth century wore on and then quite dramatically a century ago with the Great War. During the First World War there was widespread, serious, regular criticism of the military and political leadership on all sides. Many of the leaders were still in place through accident of birth rather than by popular demand or obvious skill and ability. The massive losses of life, the legacy of terrible injuries, and the sense that even the victors were diminished by the outcome, ensured that the traditional social and political leadership was damaged. The result was the collapse of the whole imperial order across Europe, with repercussions all around the world. This was followed by an unprecedented extension of democracy and, as the 20th century passed, an increasing and eventually almost universal rejection of the principle that foreign powers, or domestic leaders should legitimately take or hold power in a country by physical force.
After the Second World War, the process of decolonization gathered pace, and elections increasingly became the principal mechanism by which changes of government and power could take place without a violent revolution. The social structure also changed, with an increasingly widely expressed view that every individual should have the right to follow their own beliefs, ambitions, and way of life without restriction other than the avoidance of harm to others and should have the opportunity to express their view on the leadership of their community and country in democratic elections. There was also an increasing belief that anyone could achieve almost anything if they set their mind to it. Such was the dramatically optimistic vista these changes appeared to open up that after the people pulled down the Berlin Wall with their own hands in 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the triumph of western liberal democracy and the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution – ‘the end of history’ as he described it.
However, as is always the case, even the best-informed foresight cannot discern with certainty what is beyond the horizon of time. The decades since Fukuyama’s assertion have seen enormous changes resulting from the continuing loss of deference and even respect for traditional forms of leadership, the exponential development of information and communication technology, and a new social order characterized more by constantly evolving networks than by hierarchies and bureaucracies.
Where are we now?
However, the new millennium has also witnessed something even more unexpected. While there is continuing progress in areas like healthcare and technology, instead of more freedom, stability, and prosperity in society, we see a regression. As a result, we have more anxious, inward-looking communities of people, fearful that incomers will not enrich life but instead change their culture in ways that will be unwelcome.
Democratic structures have been replaced with domination by populists, authoritarians, and fundamentalists. War itself is no longer something that happens on a battlefield somewhere else but is an unwelcome visitor in the cyberworld that I access through the computer in my own home. If that were not enough, our environment can not be depended upon to stay stable and is changing in ways that may threaten the continued welfare or even existence of some of our communities and even small countries.
We seem to be leaving behind an evolving democratic world where there was confidence that the community would make wise or at least relatively rational decisions about leadership. Instead, people are seeking out leaders who express powerful feelings of anger, resentment, and fear.
Now we face a choice.
Either we accept that there is no agreement on ‘the good’, as the liberal philosopher, Isaiah Berlin said, and therefore we must construct a pluralist approach to governance where we live in tolerance of the views of those who differ profoundly from us, or we polarize, fracture, and fight about those differences. To achieve the former, we will need leaders who believe that it is their task to resolve conflict and build a culture of pluralism. The alternative will be leaders who see it as their role to conduct conflict and condemn us to a degree of destruction of our people and our environment, and that has the potential to bring humanity itself to an end.
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, iHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Author
John, Lord Alderdice, FRCPsych, is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and was the Chairman of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords during the Liberal/Conservative Coalition Government. He also speaks for the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland in the House of Lords, and as Leader of Alliance he played a significant role in the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. When the Northern Ireland Assembly was elected, he became its first Speaker. In 2004 he retired as Speaker on being appointed by the British and Irish Governments to be one of the four members of the international Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), put in place to close down the operations of the paramilitary organizations and monitor security normalization.