Leadership is the skill with which a group’s needs and desires are detected, shaped, and steered. This is worth thinking about, because we are surrounded and blathered at by people claiming to be ‘leaders’ – of political parties and countries especially – but few of them are any good at it. As a result, we are in a real pickle – doomed to being driven mad (e.g. by Brexit) and then extinct (e.g. by climate change). In short, we need good leadership, and urgently. But how to recognise it?

The idea of leadership. The  verb ‘to lead’ comes from the Old English lǣdan (‘lead’) and lād (‘journey’, ‘way’, ‘course’), and it’s linked to ‘load’ (things you carry on a journey) and ‘lode’ (as in lodestar and lodestone, things that guide you on a journey). People have been migrating for scores of millennia (from Africa to Australia and the Americas), and even settled peoples can never afford to forget how to do it as there is always the risk of drought, sea-level rise and invasion. So the idea of a person responsible for starting and steering a journey must be utterly primal. But a group must be ready to travel before a leader can shape a vague motivation to move into enthusiasm for a journey in a particular direction, with all its dangers and labours. And physical travel is only where the idea of leadership came from originally; it now covers other kinds of journey, ones that involve change and progress in relationships between people, and between people and their environments. All require similar skills in managing conflict by dispensing justice, managing relations with other groups, understanding and articulating the needs and desires of groups, and choosing directions and destinations. Leadership is the artistry in doing all these things – and ‘good leadership’ means doing them well.

Why is leadership so hard? Because it brings together every other mental capacity. It requires all signs in the environment to be seen and understood, including the moods of people, nature, and the spirit world, the behaviour of animals, the crying of babies, the texture of grass and soil, and the frequency, intensity and content of social disputes. Many of the clues are subtle – the bad temper of white-tipped reef sharks just before an earthquake, for example – while others (such as the dust of an approaching army) are anything but. In any case, there is a long list, from which particular indicators are chosen (as influenced by culture, itself shaped by experience in that particular environment), and their significance marshalled into a story that can help the group’s ideas and desires take form. These will have been influenced by the same signals that the leader has detected, but perhaps not organised so well or in the same way.

Why do leaders have to be brave? Many important environmental and social signals cannot be appreciated without knowledge and attention to detail, so they may only be recognised by a few people. This applies often in large, complex or fragmented societies in which there are many distractions, and especially involve environmental threats (such as slowly-deteriorating ecological conditions) and social threats (such as slowly-growing inequality, corruption, and political polarisation). Here, if the threats are severe and solutions are needed urgently, but there is little public appreciation of the need for action, an essential quality of leadership is a willingness to act decisively to safeguard the group but in advance of public opinion.

Leaders must make sense of complexity. Modern societies comprise millions of people in political systems and billions in economic ones, and have complex distributions of power among class, caste, gender, ethnic, ideological, and other groups. Distilling useful messages from so many people now requires very selective listening (to focal groups, poll samples, and factional leaders), and very crude messaging about the intentions of the leadership. One-size-fits all price signals, slogans and binary choices tend to replace the subtleties of social discourse, and minorities that cannot build alliances to form large voting blocks tend to be ignored. Only through universal, high-quality education can good minority ideas (such as equity and sustainability) spread widely, and only through local empowerment and decentralisation can accountable governance be maintained in ultra-large political systems. But both education and localism are needed, since otherwise leadership in large societies produces non-inclusive and polarised outcomes. And when these outcomes are challenged by dire events in the social sphere (e.g. through insurrection by the dispossessed), the economic sphere (e.g. through technological or market changes), or the environmental sphere (e.g. through the consequences of climate change), then polarised outcomes can quickly turn into despotic ones. Then we end up with warlords rather than good leaders running the world.

So what are we looking for? Good leadership must include the competence to identify key challenges, the attention given to diverse signals about them and how they are likely to affect the group, the intelligence needed to seek, discriminate and absorb sound advice about what to do about them, the articulacy to explain and build support for a collective course of action that will minimise harm and maximise benefit for most people in the long run, and the flexibility to maintain alliances while adapting to events. So a good leader must be competent, attentive, intelligent, articulate, and flexible, and in the modern world all this must be combined with a surety of touch in communicating with very diverse audiences. How many of those who claim to be leaders come close? Have a look at the UK parliament right now, and see what you think.

© Julian Caldecott