Two Types of Leaders
In our time, and all times, there have primarily been two types of leaders.
Early in the human story, according to most anthropologists, members of small tribes participated in decisions about the rules they would follow and who would lead. Survival depended on leaders considering the best views of tribe members as they forged a path forward.
As tribes grew into nations, a central leader or ruling family emerged. This provided an enhanced chance of survival because large social units guarantee greater protection and security. But the needs and priorities of people were sublimated to the whole. They were forced to give up individual freedoms and lost the ability to provide input on the rules that would govern them. Most autocratic nations have a history of attempted — and often failed — rebellion because of the impulse toward freedom and recognition within every human being.
In Athens around 600 BCE, some rulers realized the disadvantage for those at all economic levels of growing inequality. Small farmers needed to borrow from the wealthy and often could not pay their debts during poor harvests. The result was perennial indebtedness that benefited no one. This led to a reversal of the debt system. More members of society were allowed to participate in the rule making process. Only those chosen as community leaders were included in decision making, but that challenged the idea of an absolute ruler. This was the beginning of democracy in ancient Greece and Rome. But both struggled between democratic and autocratic systems, with some leaders advocating for government by the people and some seeking to promote a single ruler or themselves.
Much later, in 1215, a group of English nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This was the origin of limits to absolute authority that began the democratic thrust in the Western world. Since then there has been a conflict between leaders who champion democracy, which means “rule by the people,” and leaders who promote the dominance of some over others.
The debate about whether people are capable of governing themselves goes back at least to ancient Greece, where both Socrates and Aristotle feared rule of the mob. They favored enlightened rulers who would hopefully treat people fairly. In the US, since its founding, there has been a gradual movement toward treating people equally or by “rule of law,” despite huge setbacks and resistance. The most famous phrase in democracy is the part of the Declaration that states “all men are created equal.” But that phrase is easier to state than to follow and not all leaders — even in countries that consider themselves democratic — have been guided by it.
Leaders who promoted democracy were ahead of their time. They focused on the long-term perspective that it only can exist where everyone is considered valuable and treated equally. Their hope was to build a more inclusive world and end the need for war. Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson come to mind. But while we may believe that we, and those we think of as being like us, are valuable human beings, there always have been those who consider themselves and their own group more deserving of privileges than others.
When looking at history, some basic themes emerge. Truly democratic leaders remain committed to the principle of respect for every human being. They may forget this principle at times as they engage in partisan activities, but ultimately come back to it. They are found at all levels of leadership — from local organizations to national government. Effective leaders focus on working with others toward solutions. Ineffective leaders focus on blaming others for their society’s woes or lack of progress.
Effective leaders have — and share — a long-term vision of how to move toward a world where the rights of all are respected. Leaders of an autocratic mindset focus mainly on the short-term perspective of how they can allow themselves and their cohorts to remain in power.
No one can come into a position of leadership — or stay there — without popular support. Democratic leaders have compassion and concern for the lives of everyone which is expressed in their actions. Autocratic leaders only receive the support of those who believe that some should dominate others.
Leaders who believe in democracy understand that human beings, though imperfect, need to bond together to get their needs met and promote policies toward that end.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.