The second month of the year revealed the person-of-the-year, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I suspect most of us are astonished by the depth and dexterity of his wartime leadership.
While a father with young children, he must also be the Father of his Nation. He chose to remain on the battlefield after Russia attacked and dispatched assassination teams to take him out. He declined when Western leaders urged him to move Ukraine’s Capitol to another country. True fathers stay close.
Zelenskyy understands the importance of words and images. He restates and updates the challenge each day. He calls for courage while being courageous. His life and leadership are one. There is not a whiff of hypocrisy.
I suspect all of us have been humbled by bravery under fire—as we have watched Ukrainians wave goodbye to their families and leave for the battlefield.
The news from Ukraine draws a sharp contrast. Forty- and fifty-year-old Ukrainian leaders speak of their day-to-day challenges—they are at the top of the news. Our leaders, mostly, form a gerontocracy. President Joe Biden is 79 and the person who is said to be the leader of the Republican Party is 75. If he were reelected, he would take office at 78. Congressional leadership follows the same pattern.
America needs leaders of proven merit, not a gerontocracy—the world is evolving rapidly. America needs a political system and engaged voters who look first for leadership skills. We need expansive not contentious voices. We need to pay more attention to accomplishment than advocacy. Advocacy is relatively easy, I know, accomplishment as the leader of a nation is complicated.
The 21st Century world that unfolds each day is reshaping life—disruption is endemic. Computers, Robots and their constant companion Software are the big three. They are the fulcrum of disruption—in our families and in what we think of as ordinary affairs.
Ordinary affairs now tend to spin out of control. There was a moment—a rather long one—when political leaders appeared to be more in control. But then politics, always contentious, became combustible as noisy ideologues or worse use social media to enhance themselves while dividing others.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected as the head of a new political Party formed in 2017. In America we have a stratified and legally protected two-Party structure that today often rewards dogma not accomplishment.
But then there is a much bigger world beyond the political echo chambers. A look at the communications culture shows that Elon Musk is well ahead of President Biden in influence currency. On the most frequently used public messaging platform, Twitter, Musk is followed by 82.6 million people; Biden is followed by 21.3 million. Incidentally, Donald J Trump Jr. is followed by 7.5M.
Musk’s car company, Tesla, is valued at almost ten times the value of General Motors and Ford combined. He founded SpaceX; it is the launch partner with NASA. Plus, it provides a constellation of low earth orbit satellites called Starlink which provides a communications network for Ukraine after Russia bombed its infrastructure. Russia has now declared war on Starlink.
I use Musk illustratively—his wealth, reach and idiosyncratic nature—are both real and symbolic.
Unfortunately, it is hard to find political leaders equal to the challenges of a disruptive world. Public opinion polls suggest Americans have a hard time getting beyond public figures who are mostly known for being known, not for any real accomplishment. Too often today being known is insufficient; you have to stir up the Party’s “base”—attempting to lead from behind.
A Gallup poll in February of this year reported that 29% identified as Democrats, 26% as Republicans and 42% as Independents. How does a President whose enabling power derives from a majority of 29% who self-identify as Democrats serve as an expansive political leader? By leading, and in a democracy, leaders must draw strength well beyond the base in their own Party.
There is an irrepressible breakthrough on the horizon; recall Elon Musk’s Twitter followers—82.6M. Leaders with influence currency can organize an independent political campaign almost overnight. They have a base outside the highly regulated walls of protection built by the two political parties and its dogma. The path to form a new Party to run for President is an order of magnitude easier than when Ross Perot ran in 1996 and garnered 19% of the popular vote. It is too early to forecast the consequences, but as a person who recently joined the Independent column, I am pleased at the prospect.
Free markets are supported by the vast majority of Americans because buyers and sellers discipline each other. We need a much freer political market—expansive leadership is unlikely to come from either of our entrenched Parties.
Elementary School Antics
Increasing numbers of political hacks and their camp followers are reverting to a grade school pattern of mocking disability. They, to the detriment of the United States, look for circumstances that they claim shows President Joe Biden as too feeble for the job.
I know a number of older people whose mental and physical dexterity has declined but when push comes to shove display wisdom—they have had a lot of years to accumulate it. And I am not talking about people who have dozens of skilled support staff to cut through the noise. The White House is populated by more than the first family.
History will give us an inside look at Joe Biden’s decision-making. Fortunately, historians will not waste a fraction of a second on the political hacks. Presidential processes and decisions are fair game; attack the policy, not the man.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.