Addressing a group of Web enthusiasts, investors and entrepreneurs at last year’s G8 meeting, French President Nicholas Sarkozy reminded the audience that while the rise of the Internet is to be celebrated, we mustn’t forget that the democratic government is the only legitimate representation of the will of the people.
President Sarkozy’s words strike at the heart of the discussion that unfolded during the 2012 World Economic Forum on Latin America’s closing plenary – The Next Generation of Latin American Leadership – from which emerged two very different definitions of leadership.
The first definition is the traditional variety in which leadership is exercised by recognized and democratically validated leaders represented by President Sarkozy in both his words and his position. In the traditional definition of leadership, the will of each citizen is limited to the ability to contribute a binary choice every 4-5 years.
One the other side of the debate is the notion of leadership proposed by Chilean MIT professor and Young Global Leader Cesar Hidalgo with Argentinean technologist and Global Shaper Santiago Siri. In the new digital era, leadership is assumed by those individuals who are able to move their fellow citizens to action, as was demonstrated in both the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Rather than wait for elections to legitimize their ability to lead, these citizens harness popular sentiment and move others towards real offline action.
In the new definition of leadership, citizens no longer allow representatives a monopoly to speak on their behalf. Contrary to the traditional model, ubiquitous connectivity and real-time, two-way communication allows for the people to speak for themselves. The sentiment was best expressed by Santiago Siri when he inverted Spiderman’s classic statement to read: “With great responsibility comes great power”. Leadership is therefore being crowdsourced to citizens who are most committed to bringing about change in their communities.
According to Cesar Hidalgo, innovation does not wait for the market to be ready to reveal itself. The same can be said for the desires of the people to have more control over their own governance. As the traditional leaders of the Arab world have discovered, the will of the people will not wait for our political institutions to be ready to accommodate our newfound urge to transition from representative democracy to participatory democracy.
Moving forward, successful traditional leaders will be those who learn to embrace rather than attempt to silence these new manifestations of leadership. They will look for means by which to continue the historic devolution of powers, not only from one level of government to the next but instead directly to the citizens. Rather than insist that the status quo must be maintained to protect us from ourselves, new leaders will seek to instigate conversations around how to build the institutions, culture and processes required for societies to thrive through a mix of representation and direct participation.
Though sceptics will point to past populist abuses of direct democracy as evidence that populations are incapable of governing themselves, optimists will focus on new systems of checks and balances alongside legal frameworks that allow for thriving, healthy citizen participation.
“Politics,” Marshall McLuhan wrote, “is the process of solving the problems of today with the tools of yesterday.” For a new generation of Latin American leaders, politics will become the process of solving the problems of today with the tools of today.
Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the Global Shapers Community Manager for the Americas. Follow him on Twitter: @MCA_AT_WEF