If you knew that nature had granted you enormous talents, what would you do with your life? Would you try to become the next Steve Jobs, the man who brought us iPhones, iPads and other marvels that changed the way we live? Or would you rather go to Wall Street and work the financial magic that allows you to slather yourself in wealth, bringing every material wish within easy reach?
Would you consider becoming a politician?
Judging by what we see around the world today, the truly talented people of the last generation have shunned careers in politics and government.
In the face of an avalanche of major global challenges, what we see at the top is a stunning absence of strong, credible, and effective leadership. At a time when the world needs top talent to face daunting problems, the top rungs of power seem populated by people who not only fail to inspire, but fail to come up with creative solutions.
Blame it on August if you want to understand why European leaders were all at the beach when parts of London went up in flames and when world financial markets lurched into stomach-turning gyrations, when financial markets wondered if a major European country would suddenly plunge the whole world into another massive recession. Some European leaders brushed off the sand and flew back to work. But despite their valiant efforts, they all seemed much smaller than their problems.
In America, the Republican field for the 2012 election continues to underwhelm. For depressed Democrats, the highest hope is more of the same after the next election. Suggestions that perhaps Hillary Clinton should run in 2012 are quickly shut down with reminders that primary challenges to a sitting president serve mostly to ensure defeat.
The next president and Congress will make crucial decisions that will profoundly affect everyone’s life. It’s a time when we will desperately need more talent in Washington.
In the Middle East, leadership is also elusive during a crucial time in history. What started as a series of dazzling displays of people power in Arab countries has moved in a troubling direction. The carnage continues in Syria. The war in Libya looks like a stalemate. And in Egypt, where the masses toppled a dictator, hopes that the country would become a model of liberal Arab democracy are yielding to fears that modernizers are losing ground. Despite the transformative power of the uprisings, no strong and credible leaders have emerged to guide their countries into the future. That’s partly because of the nature of the movements, defusing power among the masses. But right about now they need leadership to articulate and put into place a program of change.
In the small corner of the Middle East that once received all the world’s attention, leadership has also proven evanescent. Both Israelis and Palestinians seem locked into place by leaders who are afraid to take chances.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is afraid to look as if he might make a concession, lest hardliners brand him a traitor. But without concessions from both sides peace will never come. In fact, we don’t know what will come. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is letting right-wingers in his coalition hijack a wave of domestic public discontent. As a result, people-power protests that started in Tel Aviv over high housing prices have become an excuse to spend more money building in East Jerusalem.
The great danger created by this worldwide leadership vacuum is that it opens the way for the wrong kind of charismatic individuals to gain political traction. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. In times of uncertainty people yearn for direction. They yearn for someone to believe in, someone to follow.
Times of crisis have given us great figures, the likes of Churchill and Roosevelt. But the disastrous aftermath of World War I and the worldwide depression of the 1930s also opened the door to individuals who etched their names in history by bringing suffering and devastation.
Perhaps these times of crisis will uncover the hidden mettle of our current leaders, forcing them to act with more boldness and determination. Maybe someone with great talents will surprise us, reminding us that beyond the riches and glory of working at Google and Facebook, beyond high tech and investment banking, the world of politics desperately needs a few good men and women who can make a real difference.