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A Manifesto for Leadership in the 21st Century

A Manifesto for Leadership in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing remarkably well, welcome new readers, and a Big Thanks to everyone for joining me at this new little cafe slash bar slash tiny speck of light in the universe. Today we’re going to discuss…I’m going to write a manifesto. Remember when I used to write those? It’s time for more, because, well…take a hard look at the state of the world.

It hit a lot of people hard. Harder than I thought. I made the sort of brutal, sudden, and frank admission to you that I think I failed. Not at winning some dumb shit internet popularity contest, but at…preventing, averting, stopping any of these many crises…despite all my warnings, which only seemed to make people, the establishment, etcetera, hate me more. And I talked at length about how it makes me feel, which is bereft and heartbroken.

So. Why did I talk to you about this? Because I wanted your pity? Sympathy? Nope. Because I wanted you guys to be my therapists? Nope, although I hear many of you are really good therapists. I talked to you about that because….

There’s a sort of stunning disjuncture I want you to note. Everything is failing around us. When I say everything, I mean everything. Economies, societies, cultures, polities. And yet…do you ever hear a single leader say they’ve failed? They don’t. You’ll never hear a columnist hold up their hand and say: “I was wrong.” Or a politician say: “We made the wrong decision.” Or a business leader say: “We blew it.” 

I don’t want to be that guy.

And I don’t want to be that guy for a reason. That reason isn’t some kind of moral sanctimony, as much as I really, really want a horse (true story.) That reason is…that leadership is failing.

Does “Leadership" Matter Anymore?

Tell me who you think a leader is today. Anyone? The word itself provokes scorn and derision. We’re failing to develop, cultivate, become leaders. And part of the reason is that the way we practice and think about leadership is seriously, completely, and totally obsolete. The old ideas of leadership all sort of come from military spheres, and that’s all fine, but they’re not really appropriate anymore for today. 

And yet unless we develop leadership and leaders—and that means even in your own life, in little ways, which matter immensely, in the end—nothing is going to change.

Leaders are going to be subsumed, eaten alive, and left for dead by demagogues. And this is a spectrum. Demagoguery and leadership. You can be a demagogue, but you can’t be a true leader, and vice versa, and I’ll come back to that. 

So. That’s why I made this sort of stunning and brutal admission to you. Because we need to change the paradigm of leadership. And I needed to set an example, having been a leader in so many ways, about how to do it righter and better. That example began with me being open and frank about the fact that I’ve failed.

Now let’s talk about the principles of next-generation leadership, using my example, and many more besides. Here’s the first one.

Emotional resonance.

When I admitted that I failed, something interesting happened. People connected to it. We’ve all failed, after all. Now think about leadership. We don’t produce true leaders anymore—the regressive side, the authoritarian one, produces demagogues. And people connect around the world this insane wave to demagogues, sort of tuning out would-be leaders. Why is that?

Emotion. I talked to you about how I felt: broken, shattered, empty, small. And you understood, because you’ve been there too. That’s a moment of emotional resonance. Now think about demagogues: they’re…emotional. They’re drama queens. They live and breathe melodrama, like Trump, on an almost comical level. And people respond to it. Now think about would-be leader, like, I don’t know, Biden. Nobody connects, right? Why is that? Because they don’t emote.

The few moments that Biden does get through are when he sort of becomes Dark Brandon and emotes. Then he goes back to the old model of leadership, and…bang…that connection’s gone. The old model: steely silence. Never admit weakness. Don’t ever admit failure. Don’t show an ounce of emotion. The military model, right? But this isn’t the military. That might work on the battlefield, and maybe even be necessary. But this is the world. And in this world, emotional resonance matters for a very simple reason…

Which is that the world’s gotten more emotionally open. Think of, I don’t know, the much-maligned TikTok. What are people doing there? What is this whole “influencer” thing really about? It’s about sharing emotions. You’d rarely see strangers laugh, cry, confess, share their guilt, anger, humiliation, etcetera—but now, you can literally be flooded with so much of it that after about thirty seconds you’re shuddering. In a world like this? Being emotionless is a recipe for disaster, and it’s a big, big reason why leadership isn’t working anymore—it can’t connect with anyone without being raw and honest about what it feels.

The average Joe or Jane looks at the emotionless robots our leaders have become, sees the world melting down, and asks: “what the hell is wrong with these people? Don’t they feel anything?” And they quickly conclude they can’t be trusted, because a person with no feelings has got to be either a sociopath or an android. 

So what does leadership feel? That brings me to my second principle, which is…

Paradigmatic Ownership.

How do you think most leaders that we think of when we say the word feel these days? Take someone, like, I don’t, Obama. I’m sure he’s happy watching his kids grow up and whatnot, but I can’t imagine he looks at the world and feels happy. It’s all going to hell, what he fought for, right down the drain.

But almost no leader has the courage, grace, or sheer balls to say it. We failed. We got it wrong. And yet you can’t—in no way can you—look around the world today and say yesterday’s paradigms worked. So Joe Biden learns a little bit from the failure of, for example, neoliberalism. But he won’t come out and say it simple, the way it needs to be said, which is…

The old paradigm failed. And in that way, we failed. And I’m sorry. We got it wrong. We need leaders to have the strength to say that about all the failed paradigms we’re facing today, and let me quickly recount them, so you know how many there are: economics, aka neoliberalism, politics, aka neoconservatism versus neoliberalism, business, in which profit-maximization became the only goal, not creating real value, culture, which degenerated into sort of I’ll-take-your-personhood-away level warfare, and many more. We need to admit these paradigms all failed.

Need to. Because we cannot make any progress until we do. And until leaders are willing to do that, you know what’s going to keep happening? The average Joe or Jane isn’t going to trust them—not emotionally—until they do. The old paradigms have failed, and we all know it. All anyone’s doing today by pretending they haven’’t is blowing their own credibility. 

We can’t make any progress until we admit that the old paradigms have failed. That’s why we’re stuck. Power clings to the remnants of stability, true, but at this point, it must decide: is it worth it, being trapped on this sinking ship?

I think that point’s sort of crucial, and it brings me to my next one.

Leadership takes us to places that matter.

What is leadership about, anyways? The old paradigms of leadership were “value-free” as we sometimes say in the social sciences, meaning that sure, even Charles Manson or Keith Raniere were “leader,” because they had…cults…followings. But now we’re seeing the dead end of this sort of thinking. Is Trump a leader? How about the European far right? What about…Putin? 

There’s a distinction to be drawn here. Demagogues aren’t leaders. We all know that intuitively, but it’s worth thinking about just why. The reason is that a demagogue might have a following, sure, but they’re not leading us anywhere but backwards. And presumably what we want from leaders is the opposite. If someone’s just going to take us back to…the Stone Age…the Dark Ages…World War…most of us wouldn’t ascribe the term “leader” to them, intuitively.

So leadership is inherently about what’s become a dangerous word. Progress. And if you think about it, it always has been. Otherwise, what is there to lead towards? Then we’re stuck in history’s doom loop, of war, violence, and subjugation, and that’s all there is can be. Leadership is about creating progress, whether at macro levels, or micro ones, just through enlightening and opening minds, forging bonds, lifting up the fallen.

That’s not a political point, by the way. The “values-free” notion of leadership is a disastrous failure, and the results are plain to see everywhere around the world—when we say leadership has no moral dimension, that’s when allow it be truly “politicized,” and then any demagogue can come along and claim the mantle of leadership for themselves, even though they’re not going anywhere but right back and down into the nearest abyss. Failing to recognize that is what’s political, not understanding the sort of obvious point that leadership, thought of properly, exists for progress’s sake, as a means to an end, and nothing more, certainly not for its own sake.

That sort of brings me to my final point.

Leadership is existential.

When I admitted I failed, it wasn’t because I wanted to score points. It’s for real. I feel it deep in my bones, every single day, bereft, alone, adrift. Leadership is above all an incredibly lonely thing.

Because as we do it, we confront the great truths of existence. We stare deep into the blind eyes of human folly, as I did, all those years, writing warnings, only to see those I warned turn on me, until it all came true. We come eye to eye with prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, rage, fear, hate—and see how deep they really go, as I did, when my worst and most unfair critics turned out to be outraged liberals, unable to believe that it would or could all go so wrong. 

And most of all? We stand shoulder to shoulder with mortality, time, and dust. We begin to understand just how brief the time is that we really have to change something—an organization, a city, a country, a nation, a world. In just this short time allotted to us by fate, we try to build things that last decades, centuries, millennia. It’s hard to succeed, and in those terms my failure stings a little less, though, as I say, it’s absolute and unequivocal.

Leadership, the real thing? It will break your heart. It has to. There’s no way around it. Jimi Hendrix knew that just as much as MLK did just as much as Mandela did just as much as Greta's learning it. But look around, and remember my first point: how many would-be leaders today do you see talking in those terms? And yet until and unless we do, we will go on failing. I failed, it’s true, but I didn’t have any real power. An even greater failure is to have power, and to…fail to use it to lead anywhere that matters.

All that’s sort of an intro to a book I’ll probably never write. It’d be called Existential Leadership. If I hadn’t made the establishment hate me by warning about what the world was going to become, they might’ve even let me publish it one day. But now? Chuckle with me. I’d have better odds in Vegas. So here I sit, sort of reflecting on what I would write it about, and trying to share with you what I’ve learned along the way.

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