What the Middle East uprisings have to say about leadership

This post is going to be about my questions rather than my thoughts. Pick a grouping or a specific question and give me your comments on this subject, okay?

Like many of you, I’ve been following with interest the successful, peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Success there has created a template for uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco and Libya. There are reverberations in numerous countries, including Iran, Jordan and China. Various dictators are considering how to respond, afraid of losing their positions and maybe their lives.

So, what can we learn about leadership from these world events?

First, what happens next when a leaderless group takes on an autocrat? The news has been asking who the government, or the military in Egypt’s case, should negotiate with. But does a leader eventually have to emerge from the egalitarian masses? I haven’t read The Starfish and the Spider. Anyone who has, feel free to give your predictions and thoughts.

Second, we can all agree that some of these leaders need to go. But there are a lot of influential forces, some of whom have been vocal in seeking regime change, who would like to benefit from the tenor of revolution. What happens when some of the more benevolent leaders go down? Does social media-stirred revolution maintain an ethical leaning? Will it always lead to replacing “bad” with “good”? What happens when al Quaida figures out how to steer the masses toward their ends?

Third, in The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo questions the very foundation of the idea that has shaped American policy for decades: democracy equals peace. Will this move toward democracy bring more peace to the Middle East? I remember a documentary on the Colombian drug scene that depicted the anarchy resulting from an autocratic cartel member being taken down. Is it better to keep the evil you know?

Fourth, given that leaders don’t need a title to lead, what can we learn from the autocrats’ struggle to hold onto positions? What are the implications for leadership in the future with a populous so empowered by cell phones and the internet? Can any totalitarian regime keep enough fingers in the dam to hold onto power?

My read: we’re in the middle of a dislocation of epic proportions that will rewrite the Middle East, that will rewrite leadership textbooks and will rewrite military and public affairs strategy. What’s your read?

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Who are the leaders of the future?

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.