The Geopolitics of Leadership
This week I am off to Seoul, the Republic of Korea, for my final study intensive towards my Doctorate in Leadership and Global Perspectives through George Fox University.
For three consecutive years we have travelled to different parts of the world to learn about the intricacies of leadership and the contrasting worldviews shaped by culture, politics, religion, economics, and adopted values. My first study intensive was in the United Kingdom and Europe, followed by Kenya and Ethiopia, and finally, the Republic of Korea.
These opportunities have enabled me to reflect not only on my own leadership journey over the past 20 years, but also the experiences of a diverse range of leaders in business, government, and the social sector (including faith-based/ministry contexts).
During this time, I have observed that much of the leadership literature deals comprehensively with the competencies of a leader, leadership paradigms or styles of leading, and the important role of leaders in determining vision, strategy and execution. While this is to be expected, there are some significant gaps in the literature when it comes to the importance of leadership virtues or what defines the character of a leader.
As I have interviewed leaders around the world and discussed with them how the absence or presence of virtues in leadership might affect their ability to lead effectively, it has led me to explore how this might be perceived through different cultural lenses.
While not ignoring the importance of virtues in leadership, in some leaders I have confronted a similar challenge to the one Stephen M. R. Covey experienced when he sought to validate the importance of trust in leadership. To overcome the scepticism that trust can be measured and is not merely a soft or subjective construct, he sought to demonstrate the economic implications of trust, or lack thereof. Very simply, he was able to substantiate that when trust is down, speed is up, as is cost. When trust goes up, speed also goes up, therefore, bringing down costs.
Most leaders are comfortable with the notion that intrinsic values are necessary to govern our decisions, practices and standards. Alexandré Havard in Virtuous Leadership, however, argues that the application of these values has become so commonplace that they have lost their significance and value. He claims they can be easily overlooked or ignored if they are inconvenient or if adhering to them is seen as too costly. In contrast to this, Havard believes virtues are much more ingrained in the identity and character of a person. If you like, they take values to a deeper, more mature level. Manfred Kets DeVries, a clinical professor of leadership development and head of INSEAD’s global leadership center, would perhaps suggest that their habitual practice has allowed them to enter the unconscious or “script of a person’s inner theater.”
As I have sought to understand the role of virtues in shaping the character of a leader, I have made a number of important observations, including:
- The role of national culture in leadership formation and the adoption of certain virtues
- How national culture defines and applies virtues differently, and
- The ability to identify, reinforce, and encourage what virtues are important and how they should be demonstrated depends largely on a leader’s context – at a macro and micro level
In The Geopolitics of Emotion, Dominique Moïsi, looks at how cultures of fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world; and consequently how context – political, economical, and geographical – positively or negatively influences national identity, and by default, personal identity.
Identity is very much grounded in a person’s worldview (and the virtues inherently adopted or excluded within it) and how they respond to what they see happening around them.
For example, in considering the rise of Asia as a challenge or threat to the West and its democratic ideals, Moïsi argues that
“The West is today confronted with serious questions about its identity… Who are we? What makes us so special and different? This task proves to be far more difficult for someone from the West, who is used to interpreting the world in the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ than it is for a Chinese or an Indian, who is living in parallel worlds, his own and one that is Western dominated.”
Moïsi goes on to explore how the U.S.’s reputation has been hurt due to scepticism concerning democracy and its recent hypocritical behaviour on human rights while criticizing others. The justification it used to launch an attack on Iraq ignoring international laws it expects others to abide by; its illegal detention and treatment of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo; and the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the degradation of their religious beliefs. One might add to this the inability to properly regulate the financial sector to protect the powerless against the destructive self-interests of a privileged few; nor did it bring them to account for the crimes committed.
In other words, the U.S did not practice what it preached: it “suspended the rule of law that had been its hallmark. As Kishore Mahbubani (former Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations) so aptly puts it, “when Western societies are confronted with the choice of protecting their own interests or protecting values, interests trump values, even if these are the interests of a select few.” It is as if they genuinely believe their interests represent universal interests and values.
There are countless more examples. A more recent one, and still ongoing, is the politicization of the issue concerning “the boat people” by the Australian government and its opposition parties. Notwithstanding issues surrounding the threat of potential terrorists entering the country, the illegal trafficking of people by “people smugglers”, and that official channels are not being used to seek asylum by legitimate refugees, the treatment of those seeking asylum and the deprivation of their human rights contradicts the principles undergirding the laws put in place to govern such a situation. As Julian Burnside, QC, an Australian barrister states,
“Freedom of speech, the rule of law, and protection from persecution are basic democratic rights.”
Historically, and currently, we do not have to look far to see how the absence of virtues impacts our world. The fact that they can be simply defined by their national identity or an event belies the enormity of the tragedies that have resulted from them – Germany, North Korea, Rwanda, Bosnia, Egypt, and Syria. The annals of history record dozens more.
These examples reflect how sometimes, the values we claim to adhere to are only that: values. The inconsistent and superficial application of them merely highlights that because they have not become an ingrained part of our identity and character, they have not progressed to the level of virtues. For this reason, virtuous leadership constantly eludes us.
“Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.”
 Stephen M. R. Covey. The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006), 13.
 Alexandré Havard. Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (New York: Scepter Publications, 2007)
Manfred Kets De Vries. The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 2006), 43.
 Dominque, Moïsi. The Geopolitics of Emotion: How cultures of fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 21.
 Kishore Mahbubani. Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World (New York: Public Affairs: 2005), 131.
 Kishore Mahbubani. The New Asian Hemisphere: The irresistible shift of global power to the east (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 33.
 Julian Burnside. Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice (Carlton North: Australia, Scribe Publications, 2008), Kindle Edition, Loc. 3331.
 Julian Burnside. Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice Loc. 1641.