Leadership is a concept that can be confusing because it has both institutional and individual dimensions. Institutional leadership is generally based upon role and rank. Think of organizations like government, corporations and the military. The higher you rise in the organizational structure, the more authority that vests in the leadership role. There is a hierarchical structure, and power vests in the upper ranks. At its worst, organizational leadership is authoritarian and dictatorial. At its best, it has open channels of communication for a broad range of ideas to influence decisions and policies.
A good question to consider in thinking about institutional leadership is: To whom is the leader responsible? If the answer is no one, you may have a serious problem. Think of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin. Think of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Even in a government with checks and balances, like our own, institutional restraints can be repressed and diminished by leaders bent on concentrating power, bending rules and seeking to stand above the law.
Now, let’s shift from the institutional stage, and look at the qualities of leadership in an individual. The three most important qualities in achieving success for an individual leader are vision, commitment and persistence. A leader must have a vision – a goal or set of goals to be obtained. A leader must be committed to achieving this vision. And a leader must be prepared, if necessary, for a long-term struggle. Think of the Dalai Lama, who repeatedly advises, “Never give up!” That is the spirit of every strong leader.
Vision often will exceed one’s life span, and the commitment to a cause may put one’s life in jeopardy. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Gandhi, or of Cesar Chavez. But think as well of Hitler and Mussolini, who also had visions that exceeded their own life spans, and were committed and persistent.
These qualities, then, by themselves, may be necessary for strong leadership, but not sufficient for decent leadership. To these qualities must be added integrity and honesty, as well as compassion and courage in seeking a greater good for humanity. As Horace Mann, a noted educator, said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Great leaders who seek victories for humanity are usually not individuals who only fill institutional roles. They are individuals who have a great vision that will benefit humanity, are committed to achieving it with integrity and honesty, and persist in their efforts with compassion and courage despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How many US presidents can you think of who have been great leaders? How many even come close in the quality of their leadership to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.?
In our society, leadership is too often dedicated to accumulating wealth and power. Wealth and power are not “a victory for humanity.” They are means to an end. The end may be something decent, such as combating poverty and hunger, but it may also be something selfish, such as personal aggrandizement, or something criminal, such as aggressive war. We must judge leaders not only by what they say, but by what they do, and we must hold them accountable for their actions.
There is much that needs changing in our world. A large percentage of the world’s population lives in dire poverty, without safe drinking water or adequate nutrition. A billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Another billion live on less than two dollars a day. Some 25,000 children under the age of five die daily of starvation and preventable diseases. At the same time, the world spends over a trillion dollars annually on military forces, with the United States alone spending well over half the global total.
We are not living sustainably on the planet. Climate change may result in submerging large portions of the earth under water, causing enormous dislocations, destruction and death. The survival of the human species is endangered due to global warming. It is also endangered, even more urgently, by nuclear weapons – weapons capable of omnicide, the death of all.
And what do we do as a species? The answer is very little. We are mostly ignorant and apathetic. Is this not a situation crying out for leadership? We cannot just continue with business as usual. We are on a collision course with disaster. For many inhabitants of Earth, disaster has already arrived. The world cannot continue to tolerate the myopic visions and cowardly and testosterone-driven actions of some of our most prominent leaders. We need change. We need new vision and hope. We need leadership that points our country and the world in a new direction.
We need to rethink what it means to be number one. We are all perishable, and we live on a perishable planet. The minimum responsibility of each generation is to pass the planet on, if not better than it was inherited, at least intact to the next generation. The power of our technologies, when combined with our capacity for complacency and our penchant for militarism, casts doubt on our ability as a species to continue to fulfill this responsibility.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is a civil society organization that educates and advocates for a world free of nuclear weapons and for strengthening international law. It also seeks to empower a new generation of peace leaders.
The Foundation educates people about the continuing danger of nuclear weapons, and the tragedies that await us if we do not come together to abolish these devices of indiscriminate mass murder. It seeks to awaken people to a real and present danger, a danger that did not go away with the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago. To end the nuclear weapons threat to humanity will require US leadership, so we must work to awaken Americans to act to abolish these weapons.
The Foundation currently has an Appeal to the Next President for US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World. We are gathering one million signatures. The Appeal asks the next president to take seven steps that will make the world safer on the way to achieving the total global elimination of nuclear weapons. This is not a call for unilateral disarmament. It is a call for the phased, irreversible, verifiable and transparent global elimination of nuclear weapons. To succeed will require a far stronger commitment to international law. It will also require that people throughout this country snap out of their apathy and lethargy and get involved. It is an awesome challenge and it is a necessary one. It is also achievable.
How does the Foundation empower youth? Actually, we don’t. We encourage young people to empower themselves. We have held a series of Think Outside the Bomb conferences for university students. These conferences teach leadership skills to make a difference, as well as provide information on the enormous nuclear dangers that threaten all of us living on the planet as well as future generations.
We also have a campaign called UC Nuclear Free. It is about awakening students to the fact that the University of California provides management and oversight to the two major nuclear weapons laboratories in the country. Every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal has been designed and developed under the auspices of the University of California. If these weapons are ever used, the death and destruction that ensues will be a foreseeable consequence of the University of California’s involvement. The fact that a great university would lend its name and prestige to the creation, development and improvement of the most deadly weapons ever invented shows how deeply embedded militarism and nuclearism are in our society. The Foundation also has internships and volunteer opportunities for young people. You can find out about these and much more at our www.wagingpeace.org website.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is now 25 years old. We have accomplished a lot in that period, and we still have much more to do. We are gaining in strength, and our work is becoming much more widely embraced. We will not give up and we will attain our goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. When we do, we will have taken a large step for humankind.
We must all live as though the future matters. Since we have technologies capable of foreclosing the future, we must act today to assure that there is a future. An Indian proverb states, “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” Shall we plant the seeds for a future of peace and decency in which we live sustainably on the planet and respect the human rights and dignity of all people and other forms of life? Or, shall we continue to plant the seeds of unsustainability, injustice and war? The latter may be the weeds that overtake the garden due to indifference and apathy.
David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and has served as its president since 1982. This article is based upon remarks made to the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society at Santa Barbara City College on May 5, 2008.