Leadership and the Hinterland @ Globe
GREAT LEADERSHIP — at times — must be a rather introverted endeavor.
But the pace with which we live and the constant bombardment of information often inhibit the kind of pensive retreat that is key to great leadership. It’s true not only for presidents and prime ministers, but also for many who lead in smaller ways.
“We have a crisis of leadership in America,’’ said William Deresiewicz, a former Yale English professor, in a lecture last year, “because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going . . . who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.’’
I spent the last two years collecting reflections and advice from former presidents and prime ministers — asking them what skills are vital for leaders in the modern era, and how we, as a planet, might start to move forward on a set of massive and global challenges that we seem to have stalled against: nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, overpopulation.
I was struck by how many of them spoke to the lack of inspirational leaders in the world today, as well as the personal dimension of leadership. The premium on a leader’s time, they suggested, is astounding, and they stressed the imperative to push against the velocity of the digital age, to have time and space to look up from the treadmill. “If I were writing a letter to a successor,’’ former British Prime Minister John Major told me, “I would first say, keep a hinterland. Don’t become so obsessed with politics. Not only will it affect you, it will affect your judgment.’’
For Major, cricket and literature helped him to build a hinterland; former Prime Minister Gro Brundtland often found herself cross-country skiing frenetically as Norway tried to navigate the oil bust of the 1980s; former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak retires to his piano, as does former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who has recorded Mozart and Bach, most recently on his 90th birthday.
F.W. de Klerk, the former president of South Africa, recalled being diagnosed with colon cancer several years ago, a tumor his doctors believe developed 14 or 15 years before, years that correlated with de Klerk’s dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. “Must have been the stress,’’ he said with a sigh.
De Klerk found golf a welcome retreat, as did many others, including President Obama and Bill Clinton. “For four hours, you clear your mind of all other problems, and that little ball and you have this conflict with each other,’’ De Klerk said.
Paul Keating, the sharp-elbowed former Australian treasurer and prime minister, used to block off six hours on Saturdays to be alone with his thoughts and music.
“When I had big things on, I would listen to music — mostly classical. And I’d start on — it might be — the Second Movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto or something sweet, and then move up to a song, one of the later songs by Strauss or Mahler. Then I’d move up to one of the symphonies. What it does is, it says: So great are these people, so extraordinarily great are these people, beyond the ability of all the rest of us, that you say, ‘What I’m doing is nothing compared to this. So I’ve got to do better. I must do better.’
“I think what the music did for me was it made me do better. In other words, it does inspire, it does truly open up your head and do things. Whereas, if you are simply overtaken by the paper, that is, the briefings, the material, the staffing, if you are overtaken, then you cannot see the main battlefield. You cannot see the main game.’’
Obama, amid the rebalancing of power in the world, would be well-served to dwell a bit more in his hinterland.
Brian M. Till, a correspondent for the Atlantic, is author of “Conversations With Power.’’ He will speak at the Boston World Affairs Council May 12.