I find that many thoughts tend to keep me up at night, since I am quite fond of pondering our collective futures: the type of world we wish to leave our grandchildren, the manner in which we preserve our biosphere, and how we can become better global citizens. Such endeavors require effective leadership to galvanize individuals en masse, so that these collective goals can come to fruition. But there is just one big problem: no one seems to know if any such leaders exist.
Recall, for example, a fairly recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, in which Latinos were asked a simple question: “Name the person who you consider to be the most important Latino leader in the country today.” A whopping 64 percent of respondents answered “I don’t know.” This resultant leadership void has, unfortunately, been filled by a sea of charlatans.
It is easy for the average person to confuse a charlatan for a leader. After all, both look excellent on the proverbial paper. Yet, careful examination reveals three distinct differences.
Personal experiences vs. broader perspective: Read almost any self-help book, and this distinction becomes quite clear. Charlatans are notorious for identifying a social problem (or a common personal issue), and offering no clear solution other than, “Be more like me and do what I did.” Real leaders understand that the world is bigger than the 100-mile radius around their lives and, more importantly, realize that limited personal experiences cannot be extrapolated to make broad conclusions about certain groups of individuals.
Ideas that garner applause vs. ideas that contain substance: Look no further than the rhetoric within public and political discourse surrounding the various educational achievement gaps. Charlatans are fond of creating applause-inducing sound bites to capitalize on people’s tendency to overemphasize the role of personal responsibility, and place blame at the hand of supposedly lazy groups of students and teachers. Real leaders understand that there is a larger systemic issue at play that requires dedication to eradicating systems of injustice.
“I did it all” vs. “We will do this together”: Perhaps the most insidious quality of charlatans is that they tend to always attribute their own perceived successes to nothing other than their own willingness to “work hard” in the absence of any help from anyone. Real leaders not only acknowledge their own privileges (and how those privileges influenced their success), but also seek to uplift the community and ensure its collective success, rather than perceiving their community as a detriment.
True leaders are, quite frankly, difficult to find. In today’s world of media sound bites, YouTube videos, 140-character tweets and self-aggrandizing Facebook statuses, true leaders don’t typically “trend.” In a society where egocentric narcissism has become a sort of virtue, and where self-sacrifice is seen as a weakness rather than a moral and civic obligation, true leadership is sadly in short supply.
The job is still open, ladies and gentlemen. Qualified applicants are encouraged to apply.