Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict and the author of Transformative Political Leadership and other books.
Honest, forthright, visionary leadership is essential in human and political affairs, especially in these unusually troubled times. Trust in leadership translates into legitimacy, which in turn generates broad support for public-policy initiatives that may irritate sections of an electorate. Indeed, absent integrity and legitimacy, even democratic rulers struggle to lead and to accomplish meaningful change.
Before he became president, Nelson Mandela forestalled race riots in South Africa when a leading militant was killed by white reactionaries. A little later, he simply told his own supporters, armed to the teeth though they were, that continuing to battle was harming the peace and reconciliation that he was prescribing for his country. “Listen to me,” he told a fired-up mob of fighters in 1993, when the cities were alight with mayhem and violence. “I am your leader, and I am going to give you leadership … As long as I am your leader, I will tell you, always, when you are wrong.”
Mr. Mandela possessed a deep and abiding vision. He mobilized his followers, many of whom preferred rioting rather than patience, behind that vision of a reconstructed “Rainbow Nation” free from discord and able, united, to overcome the economic, social, and political deficits of apartheid.
Mr. Mandela could not have enlisted his disparate and long-suffering peoples behind such a vision if he had not emerged from prison possessing unparalleled rational legitimacy (even before being elected president) and a deserved reputation for principled integrity. He could be forthright and decisive because his honest intent and wisdom was well-tested and believable. He exuded an uncommon affect, effectively preached and enacted inclusive behaviour, and – most of all – gave all South Africans (not just his African National Congress adherents) a newly enlarged sense of self-worth. Mr. Mandela launched a large-scale national and continental enterprise that incorporated all Africans into a global enterprise for good.
In Ukraine, from the first month of Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky has given his people and the wider world a similar sense of belonging to a worthy enterprise much greater than themselves and their parochial concerns. Foremost has been his standing tall for Ukraine: “I need ammunition, not a ride” he reportedly told the American government in February. Ever since, he has hunkered down in Kyiv amid continuing Russian bombardments.
Like Mr. Mandela and the greatest of leaders, Mr. Zelensky has over and over enunciated a vision for Ukraine, for the West and for freedom. Connecting the dots, he reminds both his national followers and responsible European, American and NATO leaders that only by defeating President Vladimir Putin and Russia can freedom triumph in the world. If Russia represses Ukraine, the remaining flickering lights of global freedom go out.
Mr. Zelensky’s greatest triumph, at least so far, has been his lifting Western chins up high. When Westerners saw an easy Russian victory, Mr. Zelensky knew successful resistance. When they sought a cheap peace, Mr. Zelensky glimpsed total victory, or at least pushing the Russians back from central and southern Ukraine as far as feasible. Without Mr. Zelensky’s integrity and poise (and his clever generals) Mr. Putin would have waltzed into Kyiv despite the demonstrated ineptness of Russia’s forces.
Positive leadership under fire, as demonstrated so well by the examples of Mr. Mandela and Mr. Zelensky, is greatly lacking in today’s edgy environment. Leaders like Mr. Mandela and Mr. Zelensky tell it as it is. They dissemble rarely. They know themselves. They are true to their cores and can therefore be trusted by their followers – by citizens in cities, of course, but especially by the beleaguered men and women in the foxholes of hell near, say, Donetsk.
Too frequently, heads of state and heads of government prevaricate, obfuscate and outright lie. The philosopher Diogenes searched for a proverbial honest man in fourth century BC Athens. In too many contemporary capital cities, Diogenes would find few exemplary leaders. Certainly, he would be hard pressed to locate honesty in the Kremlin, where Mr. Putin’s lies – about the invasion, about his motives, about results to date, and about the nature of Ukraine and Ukrainians – are endless.
Behaving like Mr. Putin, too, are dictators such as Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing, Benin’s President Patrice Talon, and many more.
Nor, given recent demonstrated artifices in the governing halls of today’s North America, could Diogenes find many whose integrity is unsullied. Where are we to find the Mandela- and Zelensky-like leaders to guide North America and the rest of the free world out of this disruptive season of discontent?