Personal Leadership and the Arab Spring

When one watches international news networks like Euronews and Al Jazeera, two distinct global patterns emerge, each with its’ own lessons in leadership.
In pattern 1, we see the Arab Spring movement: collective disgust and dissatisfaction with the historical and current status quo of rampant corruption, oppression and denial of human rights. After several brave souls, early leaders in each Arab nation, forfeited their lives or freedom for the cause, the situation reached a boiling point where individuals made personal leadership decisions to take whatever small act was possible to register their extreme discontent. For hundreds of thousands, this often meant just showing up in the town square at a designated time, yet as we’ve seen, there remained personal risk in doing even that. But people basically asked themselves “what needs to be done? and what can and should I do about it?”
As these personal leadership decisions translated into action, an interesting phenomenon occurred: first Tunisia succeeded, then the Tunisians, using social media, coached the Egyptians in what did and didn’t work for them, facilitating the Egyptian success. And then the remaining part of the Arab world ‘went to school’ on Egypt, and started their own movements; Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, even Syria are all well underway; the outcome still to be determined.
The leadership lesson: rather than look to a hero or other leader, people instead looked to themselves and to each other to determine what needed to be changed, and then went about changing it. They took personal ownership and responsibility for their situation and problems.
Pattern 2: Witness the “anti-austerity movements” in the debt burdened countries; particularly Greece, Italy and Britain, and the deadlock in the United States over the solution to the serious deficit problem. In these cases, relatively prosperous countries have borrowed heavily to finance a lifestyle they could not afford. Now that it’s time to pay the piper, the people are blaming governments and demanding that they fix the problem. To be fair, especially in the case of Greece, some of the blame is understandable: systemic corruption at all levels of government has caused some of the problem. Nevertheless, it has been said that we get the leaders we deserve. Where was the public outcry year over year as Greek politicians scammed the system? Having our collective heads in the sand does not constitute an excuse or absolve us of responsibility.
Leadership lesson: blame of others and denial of our personal ownership and responsibility can only leave us ineffective and inefficient in bringing about the positive change we want.
In his best-selling book Good to Great, author Jim Collins cites “Confront the brutal facts, (yet never lose faith)” as a ‘must-do’ practice in achieving organizational greatness. This applies to countries as well.
In the Arab Spring, people collectively agreed on the unacceptable conditions, decided what personal sacrifice they were prepared to make in order to effect the change, and then led by example. They found strength in collaborating with others, but understood, ‘owned’, and acted out their individual responsibilities.
In the anti-austerity movements, people have yet to confront the brutal facts. Instead, they continue to blame others: government, big business, investment banks (all of which have played their part in creating the problem). A deeply ingrained, decades old, sense of entitlement blinds them to the fact that they also hold responsibility for the current mess. They seem to be saying “we don’t care what needs to be done; what are YOU going to do about it?”
In countless reports of proposed austerity measures in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the US, not once have I heard anti-austerity movement spokespeople admit that they are living beyond their means, and are prepared to sacrifice personally in order to resolve the problems. No personal ownership; no personal leadership.
One of the basic behaviours of effective leadership is to model the way. That only happens when we each take time to reflect, to clarify our personal values, and then commit to do our part, however small, to live out those values in the interest of solving our collective problems. Let us learn from the Arab Spring leaders. We in the highly indebted, developed countries currently need to confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith.
Happy Canada Day!! Happy Fourth of July!!

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