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Rethinking Political Leadership in Volatile Times

Even if Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman President of the United States, “Trumpism” has been so successful that her path will be hard write Corinna Horst and Rosa Balfour. The country will emerge from this bitter electoral campaign divided, resentful, and angry. On the other side of the Atlantic, where many countries are embarking on difficult electoral campaigns that will influence the future of the continent, the situation is not dissimilar. The United States and Europe have become more similar in terms of societal trends, but could be pushed apart if these forces have the upper hand and influence policy. It will be hard for traditional politicians and leaders to overcome social polarization, renew political life to avoid confrontation, and stay in power in this context.

Advanced democracies are under threat not just by some political forces but by their success in challenging norms. Social customs and practices, and the societal morals which have given the United States and Western Europe over 70 years of nearly uninterrupted peace are being disputed. A recent study based on the World Values Survey warns of the dangers of deconsolidating democracy due to the younger generation’s weakening attachment to democratic values.[1] This is underpinned by the information technology revolution which, resembling the wave of change that the 19th century industrial revolution brought about, is transforming our societies and institutions in ways we do not yet understand.

These trends constrain and challenge political leaders in their capacity to lead, on the backdrop of a more complex and unpredictable world. Domestic politics and international relations have rarely been so interconnected and hard to manage. The transatlantic partners are at the cutting edge of something different. Yet political leaders do not seem to have the answer to the questions of the voters.  The United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit) or the high-jacking of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) by a Belgian region are only some of the examples that have been ascribed to poor or absent leadership.

Better leadership would address only part of the problem but could still be a good starting point. So what do Clinton and her European counterparts need to do to set strategies, create missions, motivate, build coalitions, and renew political life that takes into consideration this context?

Transatlantic policymakers will need to show bolder, more agile leadership. Leaders with the best results are the ones who do not rely on one leadership style but adapt to challenges, assemble the right people and tools, and put them to work. For instance, a coercive leadership style is required when immediate compliance is due, for example when a hostile takeover is imminent. An authoritative leadership style is needed to rally people behind a vision, for example on how a country can make its multicultural society work. A leadership style that creates relationships and harmony could be used, for example, through a state of a union/nation speech to increase morale or rebuild trust. A more democratic approach to build consensus through participation would be more effective through a truly open, inclusive and transparent trade negotiation process. And a pace setting leadership style that demonstrates high performance and standards demonstrates that Western leaders adhere to their own financial rules.

Second, leaders should use ‘emotional intelligence’ as coined by David Goleman, leading author on the subject matter. He argues that the ability to manage ourselves and our relationships effectively can yield better results. Leaders could learn from the example of the negotiations with Iran that were headed in the West by three European women and one American woman who were central to reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Tehran. The combination of empathy and the ability to stand firm to the negotiators is widely seen as the reason for the team’s success.

Leadership has insulated itself from broader societal trends by surrounding itself with likeminded thinking. Yet this groupthink has had disastrous effects on political life, excluding diverse voices from decision-making and political participation, making policy outcomes dreary photocopies of past ideas, or simply producing bad ideas. Political renewal, be it to mend the rifts in U.S. society or to relaunch the project of European integration, needs original ideas which cannot be found if politicians surround themselves with yes-men and women. Rather than based on hierarchy, leadership today should be about embracing diversity and being reflective of the societies it serves, connecting innovative ideas, bringing together different networks.

In addition to embracing diverse styles of directing, Europe and America’s leaders should forge alliances and reach out to broader and more diverse sectors of society.  In Europe, leadership is seen as a matter for EU institutions versus member states, or citizens versus private interest groups. This need not be the case. Networks of states, institutions, civil society can work together towards a common purpose. The Paris Agreement on addressing climate change reached in December 2015 was precisely the result of a mixed coalition of global actors — governments, nongovernmental organizations, regional and international institutions — and constituted one of the most important achievements of this decade.

Corinna Horst is the Deputy Director, Brussels for the German Marshal Fund (GMF), Rosa Balfour is the Acting Director, Europe Program for the GMF in Brussels. This article was first published by the GMF. More information can be found at

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