“The Square People”

Thomas Friedman, best-selling author and foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, has discovered “the Square People.”* The square people protest literally, as in, say, Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Kiev’s Maidan. Or they protest virtually, they connect on the internet, using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (or their domestic equivalents) to challenge authority and promote change.

Friedman is making a big deal out of the square people because he considers them a powerful new force, worldwide, consisting mostly of young people “seeking either reform or social change.” He has seen them he writes, literally, in the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Istanbul, New Delhi, Damascus, Tripoli, Beirut, Sana, Tehran, Moscow, Rio, Tel Aviv and Kiev; and he has seen them virtually in Saudi Arabia, China, and Vietnam.

Friedman is careful to point out that the square people do not all want the same thing. In Egypt some square people are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Ukraine some square people are right-wing nationalists. But what they do want in in common are leaders who are responsive, and who are clean not corrupt.

Two years ago, in The End of Leadership, I wrote about precisely this phenomenon. I did not mean to imply the end of leadership literally. What I did mean to suggest is that for various reasons, especially changing cultures and technologies, the dynamic between leaders and followers was changing, irrevocably, with leaders getting weaker and followers, “square people,” getting stronger.

This is in many ways a good thing – a change to be celebrated. But it is also in some ways a bad thing. When we look abroad we can see that the empowerment of ordinary people does not, or at least it does not necessarily, lead to stability and security, or even to decency and democracy. And, when we look at home we can see that for the persistent refusal to follow, to collaborate and compromise in ways that are meaningful, substantive, there is a high price to pay.

So this change is not so much a paean to participation as it is a commentary on democracy. As I wrote in The End of Leadership, the old social contract, between leaders and followers, has frayed. Why? Because the assumptions on which the contract is based have changed. First, “the old justifications for having power, authority, and influence are no longer so persuasive.” Second, “people in the present think themselves more important and more entitled than did people in the past.”

Just this week were clashes between leaders and followers in, among other places, Turkey, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Ukraine. Every one of them testified to the relative power of the 21st century follower.  And every one of them testified to the relative powerlessness of the 21st century leader.  Even Vladimir Putin – who just a few days ago struck fear into our hearts – has taken a step back. The reasons for his retreat relate to this blog – and will be further explored in my next blog.




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