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The death of leadership

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

As the last words of Queen Elizabeth’s speech on coronavirus echoed from my laptop speakers, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t heard words like these before. Such a message of comfort, resilience, and hope hadn’t been uttered until Her Majesty’s broadcast from Windsor Castle. Two months into this global crisis, our world leaders were embroiled in convoluted blame games and conspiracies, while struggling to contain this novel virus. Issues of science were unnecessarily politicized, and heads of state and government squabbled over defunding the World Health Organization (WHO) and blaming China.

Watching the news every morning revealed a dreadful reality where hope was unseen, and the behavior of our leaders communicated nothing more than incompetence and dread. Her Majesty’s message was so astonishing because it exhibited a quality lacking in today’s political sphere: leadership.

This attribute, once thought ubiquitous in the leaders of most nations, has been decaying for quite some time. However, the present coronavirus crisis has exposed how widespread this lack of leadership is, and how dangerous it can be. Although a global phenomenon, this want is most exemplified by the degradation of American politics in the last decade. President Trump and his like-minded political lackeys have turned what should have been a straightforward and dignified response to a global crisis into an effort that is primarily characterized by incompetence and even denial.

Leadership is often a skill learned by example, and as University students in this era of shifting notions of leadership, it is vital that we distinguish the right way to lead. While we can learn about the precedents and basics of political theory, unprecedented times in politics require heightened scrutiny and critical thinking.

Particularly worrisome is the example set by students in organizations such as Turning Point USA, which has a chapter at Princeton. I do not denounce ideological diversity in student political groups, but organizations like TPUSA often promote unconditional loyalty to Trump, which leads to political stances that actively undermine vital public and international institutions.

Not only are they acting in a doctrinal way by doing this, but they are focusing on a type of leadership which is divisive, destructive, and devoid of empathy. During times like these, with the coronavirus crisis threatening global health, our responsibility to preserve sound and integrative leadership is more urgent than ever.

Historically, these moments of upheaval have tested our political leaders. An adequate leader must not only craft good policy, but must also represent and embody their nation. The President has failed on both of these accounts.

But while human error can corrupt good policy, a good leader must never cease to represent their nation with dignity. The United States does not possess the blessing that the United Kingdom and other countries have — of having a separate, ceremonial head of state, and a political head of government. However, this structural difference does not absolve the President of performing the duties of both.

As the Queen serves as the embodiment of her nation, so does the President. The President must keep his role as the party’s leader separate from his duty as the head of a nation. Otherwise, a figure that must signify unity — especially in time of crises like these — will lose legitimacy and fall prey to the incessant savageries of party politics. As the generation responsible of taking on future leadership roles, it is crucial that we separate our ego from our role as leaders.

Many will not like the idea of one person being a symbol for an entire nation, but it is a truth in the reality of politics as performance. Democratically elected leaders serve as figures of unity and of the integrity of the state; and, if history tells us anything, it is that the state is a fragile institution. The survival of countries comprised of diverse individuals and groups is dependent upon their leaders’ ability to understand the nature of their role.

Politics considered, a nation’s leader cannot put her whims and wishes before the identity and struggles of those she represents. President Trump, by allowing his bizarre rhetoric and radical beliefs to plague his role as the embodiment of America, has endangered the legitimacy of his office and the integrity of the state. No individual or nation wishes to remain under the representation of a leader that refuses to acknowledge their existence and any threats to it.

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Political leaders have always been imperfect policymakers, but in times of war during the 20th century, they managed to inspire entire populaces, even as their realities were crumbling around them. Roosevelt and Churchill can be rightfully criticized for many of their policies, but it is undeniable that their great sense of dignity and resolve were part of the cement that bound their nations together even as they were relentlessly bombarded.

While the current health crisis lacks the violence of total war, its threat is even more menacing. This ability to brush politics aside in the face of a global crisis must be revived today — and quickly. In the end, enduring a crisis successfully results in the strengthening of the state, the institution that enables modernity to preserve and improve the quality of life of its citizens.

Leadership is more than getting your partisan agenda passed over your rival’s. Leadership is more than having the wittiest comeback, the highest approval, or the most impressive ratings. Leadership means knowing when to rise above politics and care for your citizens above any political goal, above any agenda, and above any petty fight to “win.”

Princeton students often measure success by how often they win, but true, effective, and memorable leadership is not about winning, but about being a facilitator for unity. If America and other contemporary nations fail to rescue the true meaning of leadership, then the greatest achievement of the political human — the state — will crumble as a result of the death of leadership. Let us remember this as we live and learn through these most turbulent times.

Juan José López Haddad is a junior in the School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at jhaddad@princeton.edu

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