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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Coro Fellows
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Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Explosive but not spontaneous

Q: Opposition protests against Kyrgystan's government today, like the protests in Iran late last year, demonstrate the power of citizens to challenge and even overthrow their political leaders. How can leaders recognize the signs of growing rage among followers? In the age of YouTube and Twitter, do citizens and followers have more power to challenge leaders?

The news from Kyrgyzstan shows us that rage is explosive, but it is not spontaneous; it is built on a deep foundation of distrust, desperation and frustration. As in Kyrgyzstan, it often comes from failed, and many times suppressed, attempts at political or economic reform. For many people without power, rage is the final reaction to unresponsive, oppressive leadership. It represents the decision to become personally empowered and invoke change without the approval of the established leadership. And once that decision is made, a leader's power no longer exists.

Therefore, when a leader has to respond to enraged followers, the situation is already out of his control. Recognizing rage as it develops does a leader no good. Instead, successful leadership means being proactive It requires that leaders create trust, open dialogue, and a shared vision with those they lead. By allowing people to invest in a common cause, leaders display their recognition of their follower's power and prevent the seeds of rage from sprouting.

History reveals that citizen's power to challenge their leaders has not rested with their tools or resources, but within the minds of the citizens themselves. Resistance movements are spawned from citizen's ability to recognize that, despite feelings of despair and helplessness, they have the ability to create their own destiny.

This process has produced drastic social change, from the Black Panther Party's use of community awareness programs to prevent police brutality to the African National Congress's global education campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa. Social media, like Youtube and Twitter, makes communication about repressive leadership more accessible to a global audience. Yet the ability to mobilize people, to commit them to action, still lies with the citizen's recognition of their own power.

Kyrgyzstan, then, is an example of what leadership, birthed from frustration and disempowerment, looks like. The protestors in Kyrgyzstan have broken the suffocating dichotomy of authoritarian leader and powerless follower; they are demanding a partnership. In doing so, they remind us that power, regardless of the system, remains with the follower. --Lanre Akinsiku

False revolution

The revolution in Kyrgyzstan is a prime example of the power that citizens and followers already have to hold their leaders accountable. The tragedy is that such a revolution rests in the fact that, despite the unique role of technology in this revolution, it was brought about through traditionally violent means.

With numerous advancements in communications technology during the last decade, only 12 percent of people in the world have access to computers and only 3 percent have Internet access. In those few regions of the world that are graced with this technology, such tools may be curtailed to close off citizens to the world around them.

Success stories such as the MySpace-generated student protests in Los Angeles over an Immigration Reform bill and the 2009 Iran election protests supported through Twitter shine as examples of the capacity the Internet has to organize people quickly around a cause. But such stories are balanced by tales where communications technology is used to suppress citizen organization, as is the case with North Korea and their heavy Internet surveillance and censorship.

Such technological innovations also have frightening possibilities for democratic societies. In the U.S., websites are now the third-largest source for news. With an ever-increasing number of media options and the rise of user-generated content, leaders and followers now can choose what information they want to see. As a result, more extreme views can develop with little or no need for dialogue. For political leaders, they can cater their messages to voter bases that generate enough support to achieve victory, but with little need to be accountable to all the constituents they serve. The question 'who is challenging what leader?' arises with such circumstances.

Without empathy, no leader can govern peacefully, and no citizen can mobilize enough individuals to significantly challenge a leader. Before this modern capacity in technology existed, numerous leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela, and Cesar Chavez historically empowered citizens through civic engagement and peace. Even in a digital age, a modern revolution in Kyrgyzstan still required the blood of numerous demonstrators led by a former defense minister. Until a revolution of the heart occurs in humanity where as a world we seek for something more, any 'revolution' is just the same play being performed by different actors. --Jimmy Duong

By Coro Fellows

 |  April 8, 2010; 7:24 AM ET
Category:  Followership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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