Our troubled democracies and how to fix them

At many points during the testing years of the euro crisis, commentators in Greece and other parts of Europe have lamented the absence of true leaders: politicians with vision who are able shift perceptions and goals. The elements that go into making successful leaders and effective democracies will be one of the key subjects at the heart of a conference in Athens tomorrow.

Organized by Carnegie Council and Global Thinkers Forum, the “Democracy and Values” conference brings together several leading politicians, academics and businesspeople, among others, to debate matters of vital importance for our troubled democracies.

Ahead of the event, Global Thinkers Forum CEO Elizabeth Filippouli told Kathimerini English Edition she hopes the discussion will produce constructive ideas about fostering shared values and holding leaders to account.

Global Thinkers Forum returns to Athens at a crucial time for the country. What sort of challenge is it for people to step back and look at the bigger picture, as the conference encourages us to, when there are so many day-to-day developments and so much uncertainty?

What you have just described in your very timely and relevant question is simply a vicious circle. As you know, a vicious cycle is a situation in which an attempt to resolve one problem creates new ones that lead back to the original situation. So if, even in the heart of this crisis, the Greeks do not take a step back to look at the bigger picture, if they do not reflect on the problems, the challenges, the lessons learned and the opportunities ahead, then the country will keep facing great difficulty in getting itself out of this crisis. The challenge is to shift from the approach of “I” as individual, to the approach of “We” as a society, “We” for the future of our children and for the prosperous future of our country.

What are you hoping to achieve through this year’s event in Athens?

As Global Thinkers Forum, our efforts focus on fostering creative and dynamic new approaches to leadership practices. Together with Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, we will discuss tomorrow the hot issue of accountability and how democratic societies foster shared values and hold leaders to account. The conference is bringing together a select delegation of high-profile scholars and ethical visionaries, led by Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal and a number of academics who are part of the Carnegie Global Ethics Fellows Network. We are creating an intensive, multiphased dialogue with 100+ Greek academics, public officials, business leaders, activists, students and citizens. We will pursue ethical questions that lie at the heart of the Greek tradition of democracy and develop a new understanding of global citizenship that transcends national borders. The conference is designed to serve as a “pilot” to explore a deeper investment into the establishment of a recurring international academic symposium in Athens. Our vision is to develop a “Global Ethics Network Academy” in Greece, which would form the centerpiece of the Council’s larger Global Ethics Network.

One of your panels is on democracy and its challenges. What is your view on the way democracy has been affected by the crisis in Greece?

Accountability is one of democracy’s most important components. Citizen participation, political equality, civic consciousness, self-actualization, decent treatment by authorities, sense of individual political value, respect for constitutional norms, protection of human rights, responsiveness to public opinion, social and economic leveling and, of course, “freedom” have all been associated with this form of political system. All these features are contingent and vulnerable if citizens cannot reliably hold their rulers accountable for the actions that they take in the public sphere. At the same time citizens need to hold themselves accountable if they do not operate with respect and solidarity toward other citizens, toward society – and future generations. I hope that this international conversation between some of the world’s most brilliant academics will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation that will create new thinking around leadership, ethics and accountability. Undoubtedly one of the main challenges that thought leaders need to resolve is that of a very large global economy and the very limited capacity of traditional governments and their international institutions to govern this economy. This asymmetry inevitably leads to failing governance and often the absence of good governance has been one of the biggest obstacles for its progress. In this reality, repositioning the role of leaders is the key for progress and sustainable development. One last but important point: Democracy is not a costume, it is not a label. Democracy is a way of being, but for democratic processes to work and to be fair and effective we need to have the right mechanisms in place.

Your forum is described as “an ecosystem for excellence in leadership.” One of the common criticisms over the last few years is with regard to the lack of genuine leadership, not only within Greece but across the eurozone. What do you think has caused this and how can it be addressed?

In a world of uncertainty, instability and continuous change, existing thought leadership and ethics are no guarantee for future progress – or even survival. At the heart of the globalization riddle is the question of how leadership practices have to be renewed, and how ethics and cultural diversity are necessary elements for an ecosystem that nurtures excellence in leadership and good governance. Governance broadly is one main challenge facing global thought leaders. The interconnected and very large global economy conflicts with the limited capacity of governments and international institutions to govern it, creating an asymmetry that leads to failing governance. In 2012 we launched Global Thinkers Forum as a platform to change perceptions about leadership and governance and foster the rethinking of our values for the future. Our world needs global perspectives. We need capable, success-orientated, pioneering minds from the Western world, from the Arab world, from Africa, from Asia to join forces for a better world. We also need to operate under a system of shared values. What is happening in the eurozone is that, although the concept of a unified continent, a unified currency sounds ideal, in practice it cannot work because political decision-making across the eurozone is based on beliefs and not on commonly shared values.

Where do you think Greece will be next year if you come back to Athens for another conference?

Well, I believe in people who think for the common good. I admire societies who care for future generations and I have major respect toward leaders who dedicate their lives to serving their people. I think that one of the main reasons why Greece has found itself today in such a political, social, economic and moral free-fall is the fact that for decades the country has lacked two critical elements: collective values and servant leaders with long-term vision. These two elements are the pillars that can support and stabilize any prospering society. I hope that the Greek society, both Greek leaders and the Greek people will understand that if they are not there, this society is in serious danger. I cannot predict where Greece will be next year if we come back for another conference. But I would like to hope that Greeks will be a few steps closer to defining their self-image in terms of “We” and not “I.” This will be a major mind shift that will signal a very positive – and absolutely necessary – cultural transformation.

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