“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jnr but with a long history
There is no natural arc to the history of morality in communities. The ‘arc of the moral universe’ changes when people change values and those new values scale up to influence community expectations. Those changes can be influenced by ongoing processes of economic and demographic changes within communities, but is often the work of leaders work to help communities to make sense of the need for change, to understand the new values in action and work to achieve better ways forward together. The way to ensure we don’t end up on the wrong side of history is to lead change for the better. That change is unlikely to be a smooth populist transition. It is a journey of conflict and rebellion.
Things are getting better. Long term trends of the safety, economic and social security of people on this planet are positive. When we step out of the distorting mire of daily political conflict and shock news, we can see that there is a long term trend in human relationships that has been unquestionably positive. By simply casting our minds back 200 years we can find a range of social values that have radically changed and shaped a transformation of human political, social and economic relations. Much of the digital transformation we have come to expect is founded on values that are fundamentally alien to society just two centuries ago.
Economic and technological change has enabled these shifts in values, but it does not ensure them. Social researchers from Marx to Fukuyama have found disappointment in a reliance on an inevitable course to history. There are too many signals across history that a determined group of people can take a society hostage and lead it by force, dogma, charisma or other means in a different direction. Many of the economic and technological changes are capable of being used to support and reinforce these other directions in social culture. We already can see the risk of rotating groups of true believers in many social contexts. The twentieth century to today shows that in many societies that use of technology and economic growth can exist along side inequalities that last for generations.
Leadership is Unsafe
The changes in society that we have seen to create the favourable conditions did not come about because of smooth inexorable shifts in public opinion. Leaders fought for that change. People had to rebel, march, campaign and fight for a better society. There’s no safety in a conflict of values. The action for change in society demands leaders who will step into this unsafe domain.
Let’s be clear when Martin Luther King Jnr spoke the words above he was inspiring his movement to keep up the protest and the fight. He did not say these words to encourage people to wait for a shift in public opinion that would make it safe to change the nature of society. He said these words to make the change he was advocating seem inevitable and to rally people to his cause. He led that change. Fifty years later we still need leadership to sustain and grow those same civil rights.
We have a world where leaders can hear all of public opinion and where those who lose with change can often speak the loudest. In this climate, it can be tempting as a politician or CEO to play safe, to follow the community and rely on inevitable change in public opinion. The voices of those who feel they lose by change will make clear that this is the safest path. It may be easy and safe now but it is the path to the wrong side of history. Shifts in values when they occur don’t look kindly on those who acquiesced or enabled the continuation of injustice.
Leaders don’t follow communities. Leaders help communities to act on change. Leaders seek to influence changes in values and action and their success depends on the outcomes achieved. Leadership is not a story of power. It is a story of influence to make change for the better. A leader who plays safe and ignores an opportunity to push history for the better is not worthy of the title.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – attributed to Thomas Jefferson and many others