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From big to small countries: “make democracy work better” in a globalized world?

sids-states

From city states in the ancient Greece (the poleis from where the name politics comes) to the Empires in Europe, Asia and America that lasted for many centuries, and then to the Nation States of today, the political entities in our planet seems to have followed cycles of expansion (from small to big size) and reduction (from big again to smaller). We are not back to city states today but if we judge from the trends of fragmentation of nation states around the world it seems that we are not far away from it anymore in some way. Is this breaking up of territories and populations good or bad for democracy? Is it a normal consequence of ending not only of colonialism but also of dictatorships? I tend to believe that small can be good for democracy and development if is not isolated, but on the contrary more interconnected and interdependent with the rest of the world.

From the end of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia a couple of decades ago to the desire of independence and autonomy in many regions of the ex-colonies (Aceh, South Sudan, Kashmir, Kurdistan etc.) or even in our ‘western’ democracies (like next referendum for independence in Scotland) human populations are striving for their self-determination, self-government and self-development. And this seems actually not only rightful for a more free and democratic future but also useful for a better wellbeing of human communities. Besides the “imperial overstretch” (1) and all the problems of managing big territories and populations, it seems clear to many analysts that carrying out economic development of smaller states or even city states (like Singapore, Monaco, Hong Kong or Macau) is easier than thinking to do it in bigger states (look to India, Indonesia or Russia, even if big size doesn’t necessarily mean difficult growth as China show us). So can we say that last century ideas of Leopold Kohr (‘The breakdown of nations’, 1957) Jane Jacobs (‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, 1961) E. F. Schumacher (‘Small is beautiful’, 1973) or John Friedman (‘Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development’, 1992) are still very much actual and important to build our sustainable economies? Or in reality in the era of globalization small sizes are not adapt anymore and will be wiped out by the big giants? The importance of European integration has been supported in recent years also because of this concept that alone no European state could compete with the big countries of the world. In reality we know that ‘smaller’ is more manageable and if it is able to find a niche and increase the interdependence and integration with “the rest”, the smaller size of a village respect to an ‘alpha city’ or of a city-state respect to a continent-state doesn’t necessarily means to succumb to the great powers in the planetarization of markets. The examples of economies of the scale of Asian tigers or European countries outside EU is there to demonstrate it.

But besides the positive effects on economy we also know that human beings living in human scale communities are able to create a more participatory democracy in their territory (think only to the Swiss villages that can decide directly for many policies affecting their communities) and so our societies could think to facilitate such environments and systems if they strive for more democratic and sustainable futures. The great political scientist Robert Putnam (2) argued that to make democracy work we need a high level of ‘social capital’, the famous concept based on a civic engagement through associations of active citizens who care about the “public thing” and so become able to control the controller (the politicians and their policies). But is today possible the existence of a social capital in a globalized world? Should we build it in our cities and our communities, in order to “think globally and act locally” or do we need to create it in the global village, in the international settings, to allow us to “think and act both globally and locally” at the same time?

It is difficult to say it but one thing is certain: in a ‘liquid society’ like the one we are living now nation states cannot stay attached only to the status quo of their national sovereignty and national interest. They need to open to integration and decentralization (international organizations and local institutions) at the same time if they want to survive transforming themselves and rebirthing in a new era of political entities. The task is not easy and is the challenge for the future of our communities: to find the balance in complexity between local and global, small and big, communal and world scale. And to “make democracy work better” we need to look for harmony and equilibrium between small and connected at the same time: small is more and more useful but isolated is more and more dangerous, in all senses (3).

(1) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy, 1987
(2) Making democracy work, Robert Putnam, 1993

(3) Just as example look at the two probable extremes of the spectrum between connected and isolated: EU and ISIS.

Leaders also for democracies: an analysis of Dean Williams’ concept of ‘real leadership’

theodore-roosevelt

What is leadership? If you look up in a dictionary, you will find that the first meaning is simply “the action of leading a group of people or an organization”. Then you will have explanation of different styles, synonyms, derivatives, etc. But this is the core meaning according to the common knowledge. In reality leadership is much more than that. There are many forms, shades and styles of leadership: from the most evil to the most noble. The differences often depend on who is making the measurement and when the measurement is made. There was a time when the vast majority of the German people believed Hitler was their great leader and there was a time when the Western world shunned Mandela. So the identification of leaders, both in autocracies and democracies, is relative to time and space. But in the general terms of today, leadership is often measured by its success in ‘improving the condition of its adherents’. This is what leadership can be considered nowadays. However, to go deeper in the analysis of what leadership entails, I will take into account the definition of two types of leadership given by Dr. Dean Williams, Professor at Harvard University: “real Leadership” and “counterfeit Leadership”(1) . The ‘real leadership’ is the leadership that is based on facing the challenges lived by a group of people, be it a family, a club, a company, a village or a nation, in an efficient and effective manner. The “counterfeit leadership” is when the leader just try to sidestep the sometimes harsh truth of reality to make his success easier. So a ‘real leader’ is not one who says “follow me and all shall be well”, but one who first of all inform the members of the group that they are facing a certain ‘challenge’ that needs to be addressed. The challenge of maintaining the sustainability of the success achieved or the challenge of find the success that the group is not able to achieve yet; the challenge of facing a critical condition that risks destroying the group or the challenge that has already destroyed or weakened the group who now needs now to revive; the challenge of facing disturbances from internal or external elements or the challenge to rebuild the group after a manmade or natural disaster. Adopting this “reality challenges” is the first step that the leader can help to do. After that it is easier to determine who to follow and how to lead when an occasion calls on to do so.

 

 

There is a of course a flow in considering the success of a leadership often merely in term of achieving economic development for a community. Take Singapore for example, the pet case of Dean Williams. He points out that Lee Kuan Yew, long time Prime Minister of Singapore, has brought his country from a “third world” status into one of the most prosperous “first world” nations. Therefore this is his main success and he had to be a great visionary to do so, someone who had been thinking of the future of his people long before he got into power. But is it really so? Is it just about economic development the real leadership? Or in reality was Lee Kuan Yew able to shift the values, habits and practices of his people? We have to analyze history and geography to understand better. Most countries in Southeast Asia gained their independence after  World War II and of course their memory, their ‘geography of pain’, was about colonization, oppression and deprivation. Autocratic leaders in this region were the product of post colonization: Soekarno, General Aung San, Ho Chi Minh and many others of their contemporaries. So the leaders during that era had been shaped by their vision of independence, the pride of nationhood for their people and their strong ideology. Most of these leaders were great achievers, even if often they were not equipped to maintain their achievements, but became great leaders because all of them had given back the pride to their countries. So in the case of Singapore we can say that Lee Kuan Yew attained the title “father of the nation”, not only because he had achieved great economic benefits for his people, but also for building the overseas pride of Chinese in Singapore, who were once regarded as second class migrant citizens no matter how rich they had become. But besides this, leaders, as every human being, have phases and times: to stay great they have to know how long they should stay in power and when to step down. Williams names this capacity as ‘adaptive leadership’, that is a required quality for a ‘real leader’ as he plays the role of providing checks and balances in maintaining power. Lee Kuan Yew for example stepped down at the right time and this also made him a real leader. All the real leaders with such clear view in the “driving seat”, like him or Deng Xiaoping (Lee Kuan Yew had been a mentor to Deng, who later modernized China and turned it into what is today not by chance) can only lead in a particular phase and time frame: they are not supermen who can stay in power forever. Other younger leaders who are more in tune with the current reality and the conditions of the new situation have to be allowed to take over and leaders who failed to do this are not ‘real leaders’, and will definitely succumb to failure, being relegated from “hero” to “villain”, like Mugabe and Soeharto, or Mubarak and Gheddafi.

 

 

So to conclude the point to make in understanding “Real” and “Counterfeit” leadership, in the terms of Dr. Williams, is the need to have a guidance, when one is called to make a crucial decision, based on informed challenges. And this happens in both autocracies and democracies. Take the example of Berlusconi and Renzi in Italy. The first ruled the country for many years saying that there were no problems, he didn’t see any economic crisis, never, and he just kept selling the dream of the “Neverland” to dumb Italians that didn’t want to hear about any problem. The second, a mayor of a town in constant troubles like Florence, said on the opposite: “either we change Italy and we go out of the crisis or is our end”. He pushed for the institutional reforms and the change of mentality of Italians, saying that they had to start to pay taxes and stop corruption, fight for meritocracy and not for keeping the positions of power by the elders, and work on their values and faith for their future and not playing ‘poor me’ in front of the challenges. This is a clear example of real versus counterfeit leadership. Or take the current presidential candidates for next week elections in Indonesia, one of the largest democracy in the world. The two contestants are excellent example of opposite leadership styles too: one, Prabowo Subianto, has born in a family of traditional leaders and was raised to be a leader; the other, Joko Widodo, is a grassroots leader. The first says on every occasion: “follow me, I will save this country and lead it to prosperity”, without specifying what is the danger that the country is facing and how he wants to save it. His sale pitch is: “trust me, I know how to do this”. The other instead tells the people what exactly is wrong with the country, what the problems are and how serious they are, and the need for the people to work hard to solve them.

 

So applying the ‘Real’ and ‘Counterfeit’ guidance of Dr Williams it becomes easy to determine, which one is the real leader and which is the fake one. And this guidance is applicable also in everyday life, whether one is a leader or a follower. One faces leadership challenges constantly as an ordinary person: how to lead one’s family without resorting to threat and force that makes everyone unhappy, how to make a rebellious son or daughter sees the logic of learning from older people who has faced similar situation etc. Leadership is always about facing challenges to achieve progress. And the first thing to do in order to face them is to know them. This is one of the most powerful truisms to behold.

(1) Dean Williams, Real Leadership: Helping People and Organizations Face Their Toughest Challenges (Berrett-Koehler, 2005)

Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

The blog of a friend, ODU alumni, Will Patterson

Good Will Blogging

Before I get into the heart of this post I want to make one thing clear.  I’m not opposed to gun ownership.  I’m in favor of certain gun controls, which I’ll mention later, but I am against outright bans.  I’m also opposed to bad arguments, and there are many used by pro-gun advocates.  One of these arguments that I hear frequently is that if guns were unavailable, or harder to access, it would just mean that another type of weapon would be used which would be equally deadly.  Usually knives or clubs are mentioned.

The common phrase of “bringing a knife to a gun fight” points to the lie in this claim.  It’s so obvious that a firearm is a superior weapon to a knife that it has become an idiom!  Another way to easily demonstrate the disingenuousness of this claim is to simply say to the person making it…

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