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Why Don’t We Get The Political Leaders We Need?

This is a new version of a blog article I wrote in May 2011 that struck a chord judging by the comments I received.  I felt an update was timely with what’s happened politically this year in the UK and USA.

I’ve met people who feel our political leaders aren’t leading us anywhere.  They suspect that while maybe they’re solving short-term problems, there’s no sense of destination … that the same old issues keep recurring.  Like boom and bust.  Or fighting wars we don’t support.  Or house prices outstripping earnings so fast that even people with jobs are being turfed out by landlords when they can’t afford the rent.  Or politicians making silly or insincere pre-election promises and quietly binning them when they take office.

Others believe there is a sense of direction, but don’t like what they’re seeing.  I suspect people who didn’t vote for Brexit or President-elect Trump feel that way.

How are those who feel there’s no direction … or don’t like the direction they’re seeing … reacting emotionally?

From what I’ve seen their response ranges from anger to apathy.   Apathy often accompanies feelings of impotence and resignation; the sense that life won’t ever improve.

But there’s another factor at work.  A factor that’s making the atmosphere even more unpredictable: people’s worldwide distrust of political leaders.

For example, take the 2013 Edelmann Trust Barometer.  This is a huge annual survey covering 26,000 people in 26 countries.  It found that only 13% believe their political leaders will tell the truth under pressure, only 14% think they’ll do the right thing when facing a dilemma and only 15% think their leaders are capable of addressing the big issues facing their nations.

In short, over 85% think their political leaders are dishonest, unethical and aren’t up to the job.

The Leaders We Need

What kinds of leaders do we need if the apathetic, anxious or angry are to feel differently?  I’d suggest we need:

  • Leaders who come across as genuine. Not fake PR-packaged people who don’t know what they’re talking about, duck journalists’ questions and only care about being elected or surviving in office, not serving those they lead.
  • Leaders who aren’t controlled by their own selfish desires or a power elite.
  • Leaders who aren’t trapped and moulded by a system causing those who reach the top to be in debt to people who let them become leader.
  • Leaders who can help us see root causes instead of being caught in the stale, old, creativity-killing “-isms” like communism, socialism and capitalism.
  • Leaders who’ll question the previously unquestionable.
  • Leaders who’ll work with others to imagine new solutions that old prejudices and mindsets have masked until now.
  • Leaders who’ll tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it; who are ready to be rejected by the electorate; who’ll say what they really think and feel in the service of those they lead without causing mass division and hate.
  • Leaders who will accept that if those they lead don’t want what they’re offering, it’s time to step down.
  • Leaders who can connect clearly and persuasively with those they lead, create trust and enthusiastic consensus … and inspire action.

Are we seeing political leaders like this?  Not from where I’m standing.  So why don’t we get the leaders we need?  I’d suggest three reasons:

  1. Political party machinery.
  2. Selfish ambition.
  3. Unwillingness to look at ourselves and take greater responsibility.

Political Party Machinery

It’s partly because we allow an unhelpful system to control who’s acceptable as a leader.  You see, for someone to become a political party leader, he or she must be acceptable to the party’s leading lights and elite backers.

Thus, budding leaders knows they must conform to certain norms and mindsets if they’re to gain the leadership position they want.  They must submit to their party’s political machinery, give up their privacy and mould their personalities to fit in.

Of course, it’s not always true.  We’ve just seen a rare exception: Donald Trump.  But nine times out of ten it is.

Selfish Ambition

This of course takes us to another problem.

For although there will be exceptions, it’s mainly people with intense personal ambition who rise to the top in today’s political system.

But they are the people least likely to take the view that they’re there to serve.

We Are The Problem Too

But selfishly ambitious individuals and the political party machinery aren’t the only problems.  We, the people, are the problem too.  In fact, I’d argue that we’re the number one issue.

You see, would we truly recognise a candidate who has the qualities we need?

Would we, for example, accept a candidate who’d tell us that greedy bankers are not the only unhelpful part of the financial system – that we’re part of the problem too?  That many of us share the bankers’ something-for-nothing get-rich-quick attitude?  For how many of us allowed our building societies to become banks in the hope of getting free shares and making a quick buck – without providing useful products or services to society in return?  Or invested in property hoping to make easy money?

So will we recognise that our attitudes and behaviour must also change if we’re to create a better world?  And will we take responsibility by educating ourselves on the big problems facing society, for example: war, mounting debt levels, poverty, the unaffordability of housing, and boom and bust?

The answer on the whole is no.  Instead too many of us allow biased media outlets to feed us superficial analysis and point the finger at scapegoats like foreigners, bankers and immigrants.  And so we find ourselves locked into a closed mental loop that solves nothing.

The Heart of the Problem

The point is this: would a leader offering the new ideas we need and with the wish to serve the vast majority want to lead people that aren’t ready to take responsibility for the problems they cause as individuals?

I suspect the answer is no.

What Must Change?

So what must change?  Two things.  One concerns those who want to lead.  The other concerns the majority – the led.


Take the example of South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

South African friends once told me that it was only because they had Mandela that they avoided a revolution.  But think about Nelson Mandela for a moment.  The Mandela that entered jail in 1962 was an angry man.   He wasn’t the noble, majestic leader that emerged from jail in 1990.  He transformed himself in those 27 years.  [NOTE: I’ve written more about his transformation in this blog article.]  Nelson Mandela couldn’t have led so wisely and commanded widespread trust in such demanding circumstances without casting off his bitterness towards those who’d jailed him and seen everyone as brothers.

My point is that for remarkable leaders to make a difference they must first work on themselves.  They must let go of old prejudices and limiting mindsets (I call this self-mastery).  Only then will they see a way to a fundamentally new, better future.  Only then can they offer transformational leadership.

The Led

Consider this: how would Nelson Mandela have become a remarkable leader of South Africa if most citizens, white and black, hadn’t recognised his new qualities and allowed him to lead?  It would have been impossible.

Thus, the led must also be ready to recognise and work with such leaders.  For it’s the readiness of the led that decides who can become their leader … and what they can achieve.

But it doesn’t stop there otherwise they’ll put new leaders on pedestals and expect them to produce wonders without raising a finger to help.  When that happens we set up leaders to fail because we’re not recognising that leadership is a process that’s always shared between leaders and so-called followers, who I’d prefer to call co-leaders.

So a critical mass among the vast majority, the led, must pull themselves out of their inertia and ignorance and start educating themselves on the big issues.  They must ask questions, read and seek answers.  And they must be ready to penetrate beyond the stale answers offered by the mass and social media that largely preserve the status quo.

If you want an example, ask yourself: why do we have mounting levels of private and government debt?  Why do we have boom and bust?  Why do we have rising financial inequality and static or even falling incomes when adjusted for inflation?  Why are house prices rising many times faster than inflation, meaning youngsters struggle to afford a place to live?

Then try visiting Positive Money’s website.  There you can read how the way we create and use new money is the root cause of many of our biggest economic issues … and how we could improve things in less than ten years.  Try this set of videos for starters…

The Bottom Line

The truth is, we get the leaders we deserve.

We’ll only get the leaders we need when we are ready.

And that means it’s time to stir ourselves from our apathy and inform ourselves.  Then we’ll recognise who can lead us to a better future and avoid being hoodwinked by those who blame others and know no more than we do, but lack the self-awareness and humility to admit it.

James ScoullerThe author is James Scouller, an executive coach.  The second edition of his book, The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill, was published in September 2016.  You can learn more about it at If you want to see its reviews, click here: leadership book reviews.  If you want to know where to buy it, click HERE.  You can read more about his executive coaching  services at The Scouller Partnership’s website.


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