Last week I had the opportunity to dine with a large group of leading business people who came to Austin for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. These were pioneers of technology, finance, real estate and even wine. They were men and women who grew up poor, but became rich through hard work, risk-taking and a little luck. These were men and women who know how to lead … and how to profit.
Our topic of discussion all evening was leadership: How can we train and elect new leaders to get us out of our current rut as a society? How can we inspire people to make themselves and their society better? Most of the dinner attendees had voted early — and I hope everyone reading this column has voted! — but they all agreed that they had to choose among unimpressive candidates. The vast majority of people running for office would not get hired to run a major business. Some might not get hired at all. Why should we elect such mediocrity? Why do we have such poor choice in our elected leaders?
The problem is that the best citizens are not running for office. They are choosing, like my dinner colleagues, to take care of themselves, to work in small groups and to avoid the negativity of contemporary politics. I was struck that not one of the business pioneers at dinner had ever served in a major public office. None of them expressed any intention of doing so in the future. They all contribute to politicians, but they would never consider being one themselves.
We need to overcome this divide and get our smartest, most creative and successful citizens into public leadership positions. More important, we need to inspire the next generation of ambitious and talented citizens to enter the public sphere and make a difference. The challenges our society confronts — poor education, deepening inequality, climate change, foreign competition, terrorism and domestic violence, among others — require a combination of rigorous thinking and courageous action that are rare. Our challenges demand leaders who have the idealism to try to solve our most stubborn problems, as well as the self-confidence to take risks, including personal risks, for big rewards across society. My dinner colleagues agreed that these qualities were all crucial to their success, but they are not encouraged outside of business. In fact, these qualities are actively discouraged by political parties, special interests (some of whom my business friends finance) and the pervasive cynicism in our country. We do not expect much from our public leaders and ourselves, and we consequently suffer from a frustrating political mediocrity that makes our great nation much less than it can be.
How do we break out of this depressing predicament? History offers some guidance. I sensed that my dinner colleagues, like so many other Americans, know this, even if they are not experts on the past. Our nation has experienced its greatest moments of leadership and creativity — finding what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” — when new people entered the political process to vote, to demand change and to take over power from those who held it too long. Energy, creativity and risk-taking come from people who have suffered and seek to change the world. The strivers, not the self-satisfied, inspire greatness in themselves and those around them.
Our society is filled with young strivers who have the talent, the drive and the personal fortitude to attack our challenges and pursue promising new policies. They are some of the students in my classes, who have competed much harder than their parents to get into universities, recognize the problems of our current world and want to make a difference. The young strivers are from very mixed backgrounds — minority and non-minority, male and female. That is where our greatness resides: in the overlap between excellence and diversity. Creativity and risk-taking emerge when excellent people from diverse backgrounds work together to improve their society.
The formula for courageous leadership in our contemporary world is not about particular ideas or institutions. It is about these young people, and getting them in the game. It is about improving their training, mentoring and development in better schools and universities. Most of all, courageous leadership is about inspiration: asking this new generation of talented young citizens to serve their country for the most noble of reasons — to solve big problems.
For our new leaders to serve effectively, many of the present power-brokers must get out of the way. Too many people of influence, including those at my dinner last week, support mediocre has-beens. We need a new generation of leaders who really are the best and the brightest, helped by those who understand that leadership is not about having all the answers, but nurturing the skills, the ambitions and the courage to pursue a better world. We can all do our part by looking for talented new leaders, not those who seem most readily available.
Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @JeremiSuri.