The national launching session of my latest book ‘Civil Leadership as the Future of Leadership. Harnessing the disruptive power of citizens’ (Amazon) took place on January 30, 2019, at the debating venue ‘Pakhuis de Zwijger’ in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
A fine mix of people was present, including a panel with Rinda den Besten (Chair national board of elementary education), Michiel van den Ingh (Argu.com, a platform that facilitates dialogue between municipalities and their citizens) and Reinier van Zutphen (National Ombudsman), led by moderator Natasja van den Berg. I presented the book’s content and core message and witnessed a steady increase in audience participation during the panel discussion, a sign that the subject is a real current public concern that leads to much confusion and a necessity of reflection and renewed thinking.
Issue lives and lack of leadership
For many, the digitalization theme and my observation of an increasing power of citizens is a serious, often even emotional and urgent concern. It is clear that there is a lack of leadership able to deal with that permanent public tribune (as I conceptualized it in my book).
Many also recognized my analysis of why democratic administrators often are not able to handle the replies from that public tribune or the now actual fact that the public turns out to have its own public opinion, and a mass opinion at that, frequently openly supported.
I presented the following main reasons for this:
- The small and too much internally-focused recruitment by political parties
- The addiction of many citizens to solutions and general policies by government and politics. This seems to dismiss the possibility of ‘private for public’ leaders, directly coming from society or private organizations, either in the view of citizens and press themselves, or by political incumbents who assume they have a monopoly on public cause and public opinion. This addiction to government and politics does not match the strong and long Dutch tradition of self-management by citizens!
- The lack of rhetorical skills and ‘tribunal courage’ of many administrators, because for decades they were trained in back rooms and a ‘We know best for you’ attitude.*
- The lacking personal element in many analyses and measures. The public debate and political measures are strongly dominated by rules, standards, procedures, and supervision. The personal element is more difficult to realize also given the prevailing philosophy of social engineering of many politicians and their closely related ‘parliament-watchers’.
It’s an old-fashioned reflex to think that caring for the ‘common good’ is to be found mainly in government and institutes
During our conversation that evening, the debate about the institutional and the political system and procedures also threatened to dominate, in what I noted as an old-fashioned reflex. The debate appeared to lean also towards this traditional opinion that all salvation should come from government and politics. I never join the, just as classic, ‘politician bashing’ that often accompanies this ‘belief in politics’. So, my presentation included Macron and the major of Palermo as current good examples. That is exactly the misunderstanding as it has grown over time. As if civil leadership and getting excited – positively and action-oriented – about the ‘common good’ is, and should be, mainly found in government and institutes. My thesis has just demonstrated that there are many examples of civil leadership from ‘private to public’. As I also demonstrate in this last book with reference to the American writer, Russell Shorto, who explains how the Netherlands has a rich tradition in citizen self-management as well as a powerful civil society. My concept of social entrepreneurship (2000) and my doctoral thesis on civil leaders (2014) are both based on this same basic analysis.
“… it’s good that we’re starting to understand that we urgently need different leadership for the common good and that all of us have a role to play in this challenge.”
Finally, the richest, most searching and exploring part of the conversation was dedicated to the question of where to find these civil leaders and which ones we can actually see already. I named persons from my doctoral thesis with its exclusively Dutch examples, such as reverend Visser (turned his church in the heart of Rotterdam into a shelter for drug addicts to demonstrate that there was no other shelter available during evenings and on weekends), the married couple Sies (launched the first food bank in the Netherlands), Mei Li Vos (the founder of ‘Alternative to Union’, focused on different types of independent and non-regulated labor), Piet Boekhoud (adapted the Albeda College in Rotterdam to support vulnerable students, also in housing, jobs, and debt problems) and Leon Bobbe (at that time the director of Dudok Wonen, specifically for the protected and regulated offering for sale of parts of rental homes so that renters could share in the profits of the increasing prices in the housing market and their own investments in their rental home), and, these days, including Marjan Minnesma of Urgenda (forcing the government to create a proper climate strategy via the courts).
It was a fruitful and inspiring conversation, and it’s good that we’re starting to understand that we urgently need different leadership and that all of us have a role to play in this challenge. Modern technology offers engaged citizens and nascent civil leaders the opportunity of self-organization and civil organization. Simultaneously, many political incumbents and professionals see that as a threat.
We must start to explore these phenomena and their impact, before the disruption of important matters such as democracy, free press, and open public debate, places them in danger of being lost.
During my current international book promotion tour, I am searching for international examples of civil leaders, for further research and to describe their approach and orientation.
* This concept refers to my last Dutch-language book ‘Burgerkracht met Burgermacht’ (Citizen Initiative with Citizen Power) (2015), where I called it ‘Polder Paternalism’, in which I summarized how the Dutch ‘polderen’ (the consensus-seeking dialogue of many special interest groups) leads to non-legitimized and (often) incompetent representatives of all kinds of special interests defending the compromise they finally achieved as ‘the best for everyone’, and then – very hierarchical and old-fashioned – impose it on all citizens, without much dialogue, as though they are children who should simply ‘listen obediently to our nice, seemingly rational compromise”.