Commentator Bill Schubart has been thinking a lot about leadership lately, what constitutes it and where it went?

I am thinking a lot about conflict and leadership these days …what drives conflict and what are the characteristics of a leader who can manage and resolve it. Whether it’s Vermont’s political failure to agree on an energy policy for what had been arguably the most progressive environmental state in the Union up to now or a solution to the tinder box we ignited in the Middle East, I think the difference is only one of scale.

Deadly conflicts occur when a society allows gross distortions in economic wealth and opportunity or when the State adopts or favors one religion or race over another and religious or racial extremism prevail. At this point in our history, we have our share of each condition, both here and abroad. One often becomes the prequel to the other.

When economic disparity and opportunity are in relative balance and there is a strong and optimistic middle class, and when religion and race enjoy a social balance such that racial, cultural, religious and sexual diversity are respected, we seem to enjoy relative stability and even prosperity.

In the face of conflict, the current style of leadership seems to celebrate “guy stuff” like down home humor, folk-speak, and simplistic solutions that seek to make fun of or vilify opposing opinion… solutions that “joe sixpack” can presumably understand. What’s unfortunate about this condescending style of leadership is that it assumes a breadth of ignorance in this country that is untrue.

Although the electorate is indeed smarter than politicians assume, we often confuse intelligence and wisdom. Many have one or the other, few have both. There are intellectuals that lack wisdom and many wise people whose wisdom is not informed by great learning. The framers understood the difference when they designed two Houses of Congress, one to reflect the presumed wisdom of the populace and one to reflect the presumed intellect of the well-heeled. England’s parliament reflects the same dichotomy.

So why do we remain polarized as we try to find and implement solutions? A good leader understands and works closely with both sides of the aisle and understands that they must function together if we’re to have any hope of implementing solutions.

The leader that “knows but does not hear” creates a battleground of opposing ideologies where the center disappears. The” I’ve got mines” shout at the” I deserve mines.” Civil discourse turns into jeers and catcalls while options for compromise and progress evaporate in a howl of opposing ideologies. Add in the ability of money to buy political and media influence and a decline in journalistic standards and you have a recipe that could bring down our democracy… even as we spend hundreds of billions in dollars and arms to export that democracy that we fail to respect and practice at home.

We need principled leaders who respect both the will of the people and who court innovation and ideas, leaders who respect, hear and consider diverse opinions before they act. But above all we need leaders who truly understand the democratic design of the men who founded and lead this country.

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