Democratizing Leadership in the Age of Authoritarianism

Democracy is declining for the 12th consecutive year according to the latest Freedom of the World report, which has tracked the rise and fall of democracy around the world since 1972. The report comes from Freedom House, which was founded 70+ years ago to champion the advancement of freedom globally. While Russia and China make their dutiful appearance in the report — and the US makes a disturbingly strong showing too — what most strikes me is this attribution for the decline:

“…the younger generation [is] indifferent to democratic values and innocent of the horrific though heroic struggles that secured them.”

Heroic struggles. How often do we equate leadership with heroism and yet overlook what makes heroism possible. A Seal Team Six member reflecting on just such an heroic effort’s relation to civilian life once said:

“All that mattered that day [the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound] was the mission. No one thought about politics…every single member of that unit did their job…because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.“

This is how my father used to describe it when he and his fellow firefighters — black, brown and white — stormed the blazing homes of Detroit’s eastside where I grew up. Setting aside Detroit’s fiery racism — if only momentarily — they got the work done and stayed alive while doing it. Heroic struggle can indeed “democratize” the playing field.

How might we make this a model for the heroic struggle of civilian life? Fortunately, nearly every day brings opportunities to cultivate democratic values and the skills that are at the heart of our democracy (see suggestions at article end).

The question of how to democratize leadership stands at the core of my work. It grows out of having seen firsthand — even in the democratic societies identified by Freedom House — that most of us spend most of our time at work or in schools run by an authoritarian at best, and a dictator as worst. It’s no wonder then that we’re losing the ability to fulfill the promise of our democratic institutions. In fact, democracy in most daily settings is typically unexpected and deemed unacceptable!

What is democratizing leadership? When I was young(er), it was in the shadows of my neighborhood’s abandoned factories, movie theaters and grocery stores that I saw the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle. From this place, I’ve come to believe that real change happens when ordinary people discover the courage and space to give voice to each other’s dignity. The kind of people I’m talking about are the ones who’ve been described as “talented but not connected”, as well as the elites and leaders who are connected but struggle to leverage their talents to mobilize people across divides. Democratizing leadership is for people trying to create consequential, meaningful change with insufficient authority or wherewithal to just make it happen. It’s for people who want to do something about the captivating, yet predictable cycle of ambitious promise and inevitable disappointment from our elected and appointed officials.

For now, at least, authoritarianism may have the upper hand — but only to the point where we begin to exercise our own leadership. Here are ways you can prepare yourself to enter the fire and help secure democracy:

1 — Show hospitality to the “other” and their views — no matter how intolerable. Facebook is a great place to practice this: find someone with beliefs different than your own and do the opposite of trolling (extolling?). For a more extreme example of engaging the other, check out When a Klansman met a black man in Charlottesville.

2 — Use this brilliant media infographic to discover a news source that’s tolerably different from your own and just might broaden your view. Personally, I take a daily dose of The National Review with my New York Times.

3 — Support conversations, programs and fellowships that build the skills and relationships needed for a healthy democracy. Some terrific fellowship programs I’m aware of: Acumen, The Equity Initiative, Obama Foundation, Zero-to-Three, and Fellows for Equality, India’s first fellowship to democratize leadership for the “untouchable” caste.

Eric R. Martin is the Founder of Adaptive Change Advisors, which stewards the framework, tools and techniques of Adaptive Leadership from the Harvard classroom to “real” world application and scale