Can Ex-Leaders Lead?

Stephen DeAngelis

July 20, 2007

When Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were elected heads of their governments, most people believed the torch had been finally been passed to the next generation of political leaders — leaving the gray beards from the “greatest generation” to the judgment of history. “Not so fast,” says a group of self-proclaimed “elders” which met for the first time to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday [“Global ‘elders’ launch new alliance,” by Danna Harman, Christian Science Monitor, 19 July 2007]. Harman reports:

“It was about as high-level a gathering of former leaders as one could imagine. Former President Jimmy Carter was there. Former Irish President Mary Robinson was in attendance. Kofi Annan, who just stepped down as Secretary General of the United Nations, was sitting tall. And, on the far side of the small stage, relaxing with a hint of a smile on his face, was the most famous former leader of them all and the man who had brought them together for the occasion – former South African President Nelson Mandela. ‘The Elders.’ That is what this clutch of influential men and women are calling themselves. And Wednesday, on Mandela’s 89th birthday, they gathered here in Constitution Hill (a former complex where Mandela and other political prisoners were held under apartheid) to unveil their new global initiative and explain their intentions. ‘This group of elders will bring hope and wisdom back into the world,’ said British businessman Richard Branson. He and his friend, the rock star Peter Gabriel, came up with the idea and pushed for the creation of such a group. ‘The elders will play a role in bringing us together to help unnecessary human suffering and to celebrate the wonderful world we are privileged to be part of.’ The other members of the group of elders, announced yesterday, are Graça Machel, a Mozambican human rights activist and Mandela’s wife (they celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary Wednesday); Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in extending loans to impoverished borrowers; and Li Zhaoxing, China’s foreign minister, until this year. A chair was left empty on the stage for another elder who was unable to travel to South Africa yesterday – human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Ela Bhatt, a women’s trade union leader in India, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, two other members of the elders, were absent from the launch.”

The striking thing about this group (besides its members’ obvious credentials) is the Elders’ positive and hopeful attitude. As I’ve noted before, at heart I’m an optimist — I think most entrepreneurs are optimists. It was Tom Barnett’s optimistic vision of a better world that attracted me to him. I believe it was the elders’ optimism that attracted Richard Branson — another optimistic entrepreneur. The big question, of course, is what do the elders hope to accomplish?

“In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Carter explained that the elders hope to articulate new approaches to global issues and share wisdom by ‘helping to connect voices all over the world.’ He was quick to add that they would work to complement, not duplicate or compete with, the efforts of other organizations and leaders. Asked why ‘elders’ such as themselves would be able to solve some of the very problems that dogged them when they were in power, Carter suggested that being free agents would make the task easier. ‘There were problems [in the past] that we [as leaders] did not solve because of a lack of time, or because of very intense pressures from our own constituencies, or because we were too bogged down with multiple, simultaneous questions to answer,’ says Carter. ‘But the elders … have complete freedom to escape from the restrains of political niceties and be able to do as Nelson Mandela pointed out – we can talk to anyone and become involved in any issue.’ The elders declined to elaborate on which issues they would first address. But, at a press conference following the announcement, Ms. Robinson hinted that they might focus on human rights.”

Tom Barnett, since the release of his first book, The Pentagon’s New Map, has publicly preached that one of the keys to making the world a better place is getting the people and economies of the world to connect. Clearly, the elders have a similar vision for improving the world. The other thing that is sorely lacking elsewhere and that the elders bring to the table is moral authority. The elders are individuals who have demonstrated their integrity over a lifetime and in many cases at great personal cost.

To answer the question posed by the title of this post (can ex-leaders lead?), I think they can provide leadership as long as they maintain the moral high ground. Last August I wrote a post about The Need for Global Leadership. In that post I asserted, “Genuine global leadership will only be achieved when enlightened world leaders create and promulgate a set of governing principles that provide guidance for a world with an increasing and significant amount of instability. It must be a sweeping vision that deals with issues from super-empowered individuals to non-state actors to a rising hyperpower. Leadership vision is most poignant in times of instability and is most needed and most effective when providing guidance in times of rapid change and during and after war. … A group of leaders, capable of making things happen, is needed to make an honest assessment of today’s organizations, changing those are capable of adapting and replacing those that aren’t. The United Nations, you recall, was not made out of whole cloth but built on parts of the League of Nation that had proved their worth. Some organizations are working and some aren’t. … Organizations must align themselves with the times and they must be guided by principles that help nation-states array their resources in support of those principles. Any successful enterprise (and a functioning global system is the ultimate enterprise) must have an enterprise architecture that aligns people, processes, technology, and data in support of desired goals. The world is aswirl because it is misaligned. A vision is needed to help it get realigned. A grand vision that inspires action makes the global system much more resilient because it becomes the touchstone that helps keep the whole system on track. Current events have an uncanny ability to sidetrack plans and without a direction it’s difficult to know when you are off the right track.”

Perhaps the greatest legacy the elders could leave would be a grand vision that inspires this and subsequent generations to be better and do more. I’m sure they would like to spur action and solve problems, but as the old proverb states, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Let’s hope they don’t waste their collective efforts seeking piecemeal solutions to a myriad of problems. Instead, let them concentrate on creating the vision of a better world that can inspire and light the way to a better — connected — future; a vision that can be embraced by the next generation of political leaders, who, to this point, appear incapable of formulating such a vision for themselves.