What our leaders need from us is just as important as what we need from them


The Founding Fathers didn’t expect our leaders to be “enlightened statesmen.” Inspired, but not enlightened. They expected humans. Flawed, inspired, self-interested humans. That’s why they drew these leaders into a system of checks, balances and accountability.

In his most recent column, Jeremi Suri reflects on leaders’ ever-evolving efforts to improve their communities. This, however, is not the sole responsibility of leaders. As an electorate, we want our leaders to be dynamic and enchanting. The Kennedy-Nixon debates captured our inclinations as voters candidly. We prefer the inexperienced, telegenic senator to the droning, sweaty incumbent. Our leaders are trustee-delegate hybrids. Ideally, they represent the public interest and act in our best interest when we’re not paying attention. It’s a leader-follower symbiosis. We want them to dance for us, and in return, we follow them.

Suri describes what we need in leaders, but what our leaders need from us is equally important. They need our votes. They need our criticism. They need us to keep them accountable.

The “leadership selection season” Suri refers to revitalizes democracy in the electoral conscience. New candidates enter the ring with new perspectives, energizing the people. Every four years, chunks of the nation head to the polls. The 2008 presidential election set records for voter turnout, particularly among the “Facebook generation.” But this election season, fervor is ephemeral. This enthusiasm didn’t carry over to the 2010 midterm elections — student and adult turnout actually declined slightly from previous years. People lose interest after the winner is named. “New times” and “fresh ideas” are a familiar story.

Without consistent public participation, our leaders lose the imperative of accountability. Recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently disgruntled the White House with his unreliable leadership — backtracking on diplomatic commitments the day before Israeli elections and embracing them again after his victory. Too often, leaders sacrifice the “ethic of responsibility” in favor of the “ethic of ultimate ends” – these ends being self-interested or popular. Those following these leaders keep them accountable for compromises, adaptations and sacrifices. The "ethic of leadership" is maintained by those who follow.

Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.