Leadership in Liberal Democracies II – Who Leads? Who Should?

It is presumed a given that nations are led by men and women specifically tasked with leading them. In liberal democracies these designated few are politicians who rise to the highest rank – typically presidents or prime ministers, chancellors or premiers. Which raises the question of whether other people in prominent positions of authority – such as chief executive officers of large corporations, presidents of colleges and universities, heads of religious institutions and professional organizations – have a role to play in leading the nations within which their institutions and organizations are situated.

Should, for example, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; or Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; or Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, be expected to speak out if they find an American president to be severely lacking? Similarly, what about Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University; or Audrey Bilger, president of Reed College; or Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan? Should they remain mum when the American government goes badly wrong? And what about Patricia Lee Refo, president of the American Bar Association; or Rory Gamble, president of the United Auto Workers; or Paula McClain, president of the American Political Science Association? Do they have an obligation to say something if they believe that their country is going extremely astray? And, even if they do say something some of the time, do they have a responsibility to do more – to make their voices heard clearly, consistently, and constantly, and even to organize on behalf of what they have come to believe?

I am not claiming that people such as these never say a word about our national politics. Nor do I deny that they need be careful about what they say and do lest they and, worse, the entities they lead are seen to have been politicized and, therefore, compromised. I get that being neutral is being safe.

Still, when a situation is extreme, staying safe will not suffice. Ergo, when a national leader is demonstrably and even dangerously corrupt and inept, other leaders in other places have a moral duty, and a civic responsibility, to step up and speak out. History has taught us – or it should have – that there are times when remaining silent is becoming complicit.  

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