Scaling the heights

In 2008, more so than in recent years, the world is looking for leadership. The international community as a whole, and individual countries within it, from Kenya to Pakistan and the USA to the members of the European Union, are looking for leaders that can guide them through the expected economic turbulence, protect them from security threats, avert an impending environmental catastrophe and give them hope for the future. Perhaps given the superhuman goals facing most 21st-century leaders, they could look for inspiration to the achievements of Sir Edmund Hillary, who died yesterday. The New Zealand beekeeper, who described himself as «a very mediocre person,» struggled against the odds with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to be the first to climb Mount Everest in 1953 and look out from the roof of the world. His achievement inspired a generation. Now, our political leaders are faced with a similar task of braving the global elements and presenting a vision to citizens who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the unresponsive status quo. Inspirational, as well as capable, leaders are a rare commodity and that is one of the reasons why the junior senator for Illinois, Barack Obama, stands a good chance of winning the presidential nomination for the Democrats in the USA. Obama’s rapid rise can be put down to many things but at the heart of it lies his ability to make people believe. In an era when electorates have grown weary of hearing politicians make promises they know they cannot deliver, Obama has attempted to flip the haggard political message into one where the people are the agents of change, rather than politicians. Obama is not conquering virgin territory like Hillary did when he climbed Everest but he is blazing a trail at a time when the political landscape has gradually turned into a wasteland. «We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope, but in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope,» he told an auditorium of supporters after coming second in the Democrats’ New Hampshire primary this week. Hundreds of supporters chanted «We want change» and «Yes we can.» Obama’s style has even forced the battle-hardened Hillary Clinton to tweak her approach. Lagging in the opinion polls in New Hampshire, Clinton decided to show her more sensitive side and shed a tear or two during her campaigning. «Over the last week I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice,» she told supporters after defying the pollsters to win the state after Obama won in Iowa. «Let’s give America the kind of comeback New Hampshire has just given me,» Clinton added, proving to Obama that she is just as capable of inspiring hope as he is. It is a measure of the freshness of Obama’s campaign that Clinton, albeit with a previous tenure as first lady, is being forced to fight hard to prove that she is an agent for change even though she stands to become the USA’s first woman president. Also, in many ways Obama’s approach is less radical than the one put forward by rival candidate John Edwards, who has attacked corporate greed and focused on the plight of middle-class Americans. But Obama’s message is one that seeks to cut across party lines in an attempt to create a new constituency in American politics that does not have its roots in single issues, race or class. His ability to deliver a fluent and rousing speech and to connect with his audience is a quality that should not be underestimated. Winston Churchill’s deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee, was asked what the British prime minister had done to win the Second World War. «Talk about it,» was his response, reflecting the importance of not just a leader’s direct power but his ability to motivate and raise the morale of his people. At 46, Obama is also substantially younger than his main rivals for the Democratic candidacy. The trend for voters to ditch gray-haired men in even grayer suits can now be seen across the world. In Britain, the Conservatives are hoping that another politician who favors unscripted speeches, David Cameron, can at the age of 41 be the man to lead them back to power. In December, Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, picked Nick Clegg, also 41, to revive their fortunes. Greece has also seen the average age of its politicians fall in recent times and we have now reached the stage where a 33-year-old, Alexis Tsipras, will soon contest the leadership of the country’s fourth-largest party, the Radical Coalition of the Left (SYRIZA). This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Hillary was 33 when he climbed Everest. The fact that voters often put their faith in younger politicians is a reflection of their frustration with the inertia of the establishment. They hope that someone who has not yet been gripped by the cynicism of the status quo will be able to use his or her detachment to bring about change. It is what Zen Buddhism calls soshin or «beginner’s mind» – the ability to approach a task with eagerness and a lack of preconceptions. However, the eagerness of voters to find a leader that can effect change can lead to unrealistic expectations. In the case of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto received a hero’s welcome from supporters even though her two previous curtailed stints in power (the first coming at the age of 35) had not changed the country a great deal and ended in allegations of corruption. Following her assassination, the Pakistan People’s Party put its faith in Bhutto’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal. A freshman at Oxford University who has not lived in Pakistan hardly seems like the ideal candidate to bring together a country that is threatening to tear itself apart. At least the teenager is aware that he has a long way to go before he can justify the burden of hope that is being placed on his young shoulders. «Unless I can finish my education and develop enough maturity, I recognize that I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena,» he told reporters in London this week. Sir Edmund Hillary said he overcame his «modest abilities» by planning carefully but something else he said should be even more useful to today’s politicians. «Life’s a bit like mountaineering – never look down.» The world awaits leaders that can make people look up.