The Question Of Leadership

A good leader sets the right goals, gets things moving,
and helps us discover that we already know what to do

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 48
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

In case you’ve given up looking, you’ll be happy to know that there is a newspaper column that goes beyond the cynical bickering that passes for political criticism. Since 1985 Donella H. Meadows – known to many as the coauthor of The Limits to Growth, to some as an adjunct professor at Dartmouth in environmental studies, and to friends as Dana – has been bringing a rare combination of eloquence, common sense, and systems science to the opinion pages of many newspapers. "The Global Citizen" is more than just a newspaper column; it is an appeal to environmental, economic, and political sanity. The following selection on leadership is a sample from her new book (The Global Citizen, $14.95 from Island Press, 1-800/828-1330), which culls the best of five years of her writing. To get Dana’s columns into your own newspaper, write her directly at PO Box 58, Daniels Road, Plainfield NH, 03781.

Though "The Global Citizen" is an opinion column that appears on the most political page of the newspaper, I try not to make my writing overtly political in the Republican-Democrat sense. Neither party comes close to the kind of platform I’d like to see. I find little evidence in modern politics of either the government for the people envisioned by our founding fathers or the government for the environment that will be necessary for a sustainable world. With regard to the political choices we are typically offered in our elections, my usual response is a pox on all their houses!

Yet anyone who tries to see the world system as a whole is bound not only to notice politics but to see in it a fulcrum of obvious power. Not power in the traditional sense – the ability to spend billions of dollars and mobilize mighty armed forces – but power in the systems sense, the power of information, goal setting, and leadership. I spend a lot of time pondering that power.

How is it that a nation of 280 million stalwart Russians can be changed completely when just one man, a Stalin or a Gorbachev, is changed at the top?

How can the replacement of just one president for another suddenly turn a nation of 240 million opinionated, free-thinking Americans sharply to the right – or the left?

What is good leadership, anyway?

Why does it seem so absent these days?

Is the human longing for leadership a legitimate need or a refusal of our individual responsibility to find the leaders within ourselves?

From a systems point of view leadership is crucial because the most effective way you can intervene in a system is to shift its goals. You don’t need to fire everyone, or replace all the machinery, or spend more money, or even make new laws – if you can just change the goals of the feedback loops. Then all the old people, machinery, money, and laws will start serving new functions, falling into new configurations, behaving in new ways, and producing new results.

Jay Forrester, a founding father of system dynamics, once remarked that no matter what the US income tax laws are and no matter what the welfare expenditures, income distribution remains about the same, just at the edge of what is commonly seen as tolerable inequity. What a leader can do – as Reagan so aptly demonstrated – is work on the socially shared mindset to shift the tolerable inequity. The tax laws and the welfare programs then follow. The same is true for the shared goals of environmental quality, of peace, and of justice. A single persuasive leader working directly on goals and values can shift the functioning of a massive system. So can a leader who opens up or closes down, speeds up or slows down, distorts or clarifies information flows. That has been the lesson of glasnost in the USSR.

So on the few occasions when I do write directly about politics, I keep coming back to the topic of leadership, sometimes trying to invoke better leadership from the politicians, sometimes trying to invoke it from the public. After all, in a democracy leadership is, or should be, a feedback process starting from the people, who set goals in their selection of leaders, who by their every speech and action redirect or affirm goals for the people, who then elect new leaders – and so forth.


Was Ronald Reagan a great leader? I asked that question of a class of Dartmouth freshmen during a seminar on leadership. We had read biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each student had also studied one leader of his or her own choice -the choices ranged from Peter the Great to Lawrence of Arabia to Lee Iacocca.

You’d think we would have been able to evaluate a recent president whose works we had ourselves witnessed. But of course my question started a fight. Some thought Reagan was one of the greatest leaders of this century. Others thought he was a disaster.

Our problem was the word "leader." We were using it to mean many different things. We needed to take apart all the concepts buried within that word. Like the Eskimos, so expert in snow that they use dozens of words to distinguish different kinds, we needed words to express different kinds of leadership.

To most people "leader" means someone who has power – a head of a state, an army, a major corporation. We decided to call such a person a "ruler." Rulers know how to gain and use power to force things to happen. Peter the Great was a ruler, as was Adolf Hitler, as was Lincoln, who unabashedly revoked the rights of free press and habeas corpus in his determination to win the Civil War. Lincoln was one of the greatest power wielders of all. Reagan rated high with us on the scale of rulership.

We decided to save the word "leader" for a person other people follow not by force but voluntarily. He or she has charm, charisma, fascination, credibility. By that definition Gandhi, King, Hitler, and Reagan all stand out as leaders.

We needed the word "manager" to designate people who know how to organize things, keep the machinery humming, pay attention to details, delegate responsibility. Iacocca struck us as a great manager. So did Eleanor Roosevelt. But not Ronald Reagan. He tripled the national debt; he was unconcerned with the mechanics of government; many of the people he hired were lacking in competence and/or integrity, and either he didn’t care or he didn’t notice.

The three words, "ruler," "leader," and "manager," cover only the potential of leadership: whether the instruments of power are in hand, whether anyone is following, whether the bureaucracy works. We also needed words to express where the leader is leading to – around in circles, or to the promised land, or over a cliff.

A "visionary" is someone who does more than perpetuate the status quo, someone who can articulate a goal so concretely that people create it as a reality. John Kennedy envisioned landing on the moon and rallied the nation to do so. King moved the nation with his vision: "My four little children will one day not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Reagan was definitely a visionary, we decided, for a materially prosperous, internationally dominant, old-fashioned moral America. Hitler was also a visionary, but his vision was deluded and evil.

To express a leader’s sense of reality, we chose the word "savant." A savant is learned and well-informed; he or she does not live in a simplified dream world but comprehends the complexity and variety of the real world. And we chose the word "guru" for a moral leader, one who stands for good and whose presence inspires good in others.

Jefferson was a savant, a well-traveled man who understood the seething ideas and politics of his era; he mastered science, music, agriculture, architecture, and democracy. Lincoln was a self-educated savant, one who had the intellectual confidence to include differing factions in his own cabinet to be sure he would hear all ideas. Reagan failed utterly as a savant. He had little grasp of or respect for facts; he listened to only one side; he saw the world as far more simple than it really is.

Gandhi, of course, was the great guru of this century. Jefferson was a moral leader, as were Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. Reagan we rated as pious, not moral. He used the language of morality, but he spoke for special subsets of people rather than for all humanity. Around him factionalism, violence, and greed flourished, not compassion, generosity, or peace. Once we separated the idea of leadership into these dimensions, the class ended up in agreement, not only about Reagan but also about the other leaders we had studied. The table below summarizes their ratings:

  Ruler Leader Manager Visionary Savant Guru
Jefferson + + + * * *
Lincoln * * * + * +
Gandhi * * * *
E. Roosevelt * * + *
F. Roosevelt * * + + +
Hitler * * + *
M. L. King + * * * *
Carter + * +
Reagan * * *

"*" means strong; "+" means adequate; "-" means deficient. If you agree with these rankings, you can see why Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt made a good team and what a set of opposites our nation chose when we switched from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. You may also be shocked, as we were, to see which other leader Reagan most resembles.

If you disagree with these rankings or if you see more words that should be added to the list, then we can begin a discussion that we should be having nationwide. Citizens of a democracy should be as expert about leadership as Eskimos are about snow, however many words it takes.


Up here in New Hampshire what we call "silly season" starts a full year before our first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Hopeful candidates pop up everywhere shaking hands. We’re likely to run into senators, governors, even vice presidents at the shopping center, at the town hall, at the local diner. They parade around our rock-bound little state to test out what sort of person we’ll vote for in the next presidential election.

We New Hampshirites are used to this game. Some of us apparently relish it since we fight tenaciously to maintain our god-given right to hold the first primary in the land. But, frankly, I never look forward to primary season. The hoopla is fun and profitable to the state, but I’m tired of it. I wish we could have a discussion about the best possible president rather than a circus to see who can make jokes, avoid flubs, and keep blow-dried hair in place while wearing funny hats.

I’d like, just once in my life, to have a chance to vote for someone I think would be a great president. But the political parties tramping around here asking for my vote aren’t likely to give me that opportunity because to my way of thinking a great president is not a creature of a political party or a fabrication of an election campaign.

I’m looking for someone who is willing to speak to me without being coached by public relations experts; someone who is presented as a human being, not marketed like a new flavor of Coke; someone who can admit to making a mistake, whose shoes are not perfectly polished, who can get mad, who thinks out loud, who can answer a question by saying, "I don’t know. I’ll do my best to find out."

I’d like a candidate who is not pledged to promote just one way of looking at things, not just the Republican or Democratic way or even my way. I’d like someone who can be president of us all, who listens not just to the right or the left, but who realizes that there’s some truth and a lot of exaggeration in every point of view and who knows how to search out the truth. It would help if this candidate had a stand: a moral, not ideological, stand, one that he or she had come to through experience and reflection, a stand so thoroughly integrated with the candidate’s identity that he or she could never be false to it no matter what the pressures – the sort of stand for freedom that Jefferson had, the stand for union of a Lincoln, the stand for equity of a Martin Luther King.

I’d like to vote for someone who wants to win in order to serve the people and the nation, not one who wants to win in order to win.

I’d like someone who knows not just about politics and factions, but about the world, other peoples and cultures, the thoughts and dreams of the 94 percent of humanity who happen not to be born in the US. I’d like my candidate to know about the rest of the world not just from books, not from advisers, but from having been there.

I want a president who can see beyond statistics to identify with housewives, farmers, steelworkers and small businessmen, the unemployed and the poor, as real people, not as voting blocs.

The candidate I’d vote for would treasure the environment and the resources of our country – the soils and waters and air, the human beings, and especially the children – and would realize that in them, not in weapons and threats, is our national security.

Most important, I’d vote for a person who not only speaks the rhetoric of peace, but who deeply understands what peace means; a person who enters negotiations not for show, but to come to agreement; a person who defends the interests, security, and pride of this nation, but realizes that no international order can persist that does not serve the interests, security, and pride of all nations.

As I write down this list of ideals, which I keep in my heart but never speak about in public, all the normal denials are coming up. There is no person with all these qualities. If there were such a person, he or she would not be chosen by our nominating process. And if by chance someone like that were nominated for president, he or she would not be elected.

If all those kneejerk negatives are true, I might as well go into hibernation until "silly season" is over and then cast a lukewarm vote for one of the public relations creations the parties serve up to me.

But if there’s even a small possibility that the 240 million souls in this awesomely powerful land could find and elect a great president, then what? Then, I guess, the thing to do is pitch in, reject the shallow posturing, ask serious questions, and get my friends and neighbors to join me in demanding that the parties, the press, and the candidates treat the election process with the dignity it deserves.


Given the national confusion on ethical issues from Baby M to the defense of the Persian Gulf, we could use some moral leadership. But if I’m a typical example, I’m afraid we are likely to look for it in the wrong place.

My all-American public school education was not heavy on ethical analysis. In fact, since I took mostly science courses, my moral confidence was systematically eroded. Every day I absorbed strong messages – values have no place in the laboratory; observe what is happening outside you not inside you; feelings have no validity; if you can’t see and measure a conscience, then it must not exist.

My training taught me to determine rightness and wrongness from outside, from measurable criteria such as economic profitability, not from the promptings of an invisible, unquantifiable conscience. My elders provided me with hundreds of examples of how to rationalize glibly just about any act I might want to commit.

Then I was asked to teach a course on environmental ethics. I didn’t know how to begin. How could I lead students through the thickets of moral controversy about population growth, nuclear power, and acid rain? And yet what could be more important than to provide them with some ethical grounding?

To prepare for the course, I sat in on philosophy and religion classes. I read books on ethics. I talked to pastors, priests, and gurus. I looked outside myself for moral leadership.

I discovered that that was the wrong place to look. Inside I had known right from wrong all along.

Religions and ethical theories all have lists of moral rules. They boil down to the ones we learned at our mother’s knee. Don’t hurt people, don’t steal, don’t lie. Help each other out.

The rules are not the primary authority, say the ethicists. They derive from something we all have within us, a clear sense of rightness, a sense that is given many names. We can get in touch with it whenever we want to. Prayer and meditation are ways – not the only ways – of getting in touch, of listening for moral guidance.

What that guidance says is consistent and simple. You are precious and special. So is everyone else, absolutely everyone. Act accordingly.

Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you. Don’t do what would cause society to fall apart if everyone did it. Try to do what you would want done if you were someone else – a homeless person in New York, a child in Ethiopia, a Nicaraguan peasant, a Polish dockworker.

You don’t want your spouse to commit adultery, so don’t do it yourself. You don’t want to raise a family on a minimum wage, so pay your workers decent incomes. You don’t want to live near a hazardous waste dump, so don’t create one. If everyone were to cheat on income tax or insider-trading laws, the government and the stock market couldn’t function. So don’t cheat.

It’s not hard to see what’s right. What’s hard is to admit how much of what we do is wrong.

Moral confusion is greatest not at the individual level but at the level of nations. Nations involve people too, people who are all as unique and precious as we are. The rules still apply. We don’t want Libyan jets sweeping down in the night to bomb Washington; therefore, it was wrong to bomb Tripoli. We don’t want Nicaragua to finance hoodlums to shoot our people and destabilize our government; therefore, it is wrong for us to do that to them. Creating weapons that can destroy not only enemy nations but also our own is so irrational that it defies ethical theory. To think ethically, you have to be at least sane enough to recognize a wrong when it threatens you.

The usual excuse for state-sponsored immorality is that it opposes the evil of others. When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, when white Afrikaners oppress blacks, when Qaddafi harbors terrorists, when Chile tortures political dissenters, they are acting immorally. Don’t we have an obligation to do something about it?

That’s the hardest part of moral theory for me – what to do about the evil of others. I have found Gandhi to be a wise guide here. Oppose evil, he says, with all your might. Use every possible form of resistance and noncooperation. But don’t use violence, which sucks you down into evil yourself. You can’t fight evil with evil; fight it only with good.

By any ethical theory the basic assumptions of our foreign policy are immoral. Americans are not more worthy than other human beings. Our nation ought not to have its way at the expense of other nations. The existence of evil elsewhere does not justify committing evil ourselves. Not many of our actions in the world are morally defensible.

Moral leadership does not mean someone to tell us what to do. It means someone to help us discover that we already know what to do, someone who can recognize the smokescreens we all throw into ethical discussions to make us feel good about what we know we should feel bad about, someone to keep reminding us that we are special and precious – all of us, every one of us, but none of us more special or precious than anyone else.

Calculation Doesn’t Add Up

When a person behaves in keeping with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth and when he tries to behave as a citizen even under conditions where citizenship is degraded, it may not lead to anything, yet it might. But what surely will not lead to anything is when a person calculates whether it will lead to something or not.

– Vaclav Havel

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