The Lone Ranger Danger

Seemingly exhausted from the 2010 election, Americans are nonetheless poised to jump on the 2012 presidential election treadmill. Polls comparing potential Republican candidates against each other and President Obama are emerging. Critics and supporters of both the president and his rivals for power are warming up and, in some cases, already hard at it.

It seems curious for a country that regularly criticizes the leaders it has to be so obsessed with picking new ones. We're like the gambler who rails against his bad luck as he tosses the next chip on the table. This is not new. For all of our history, we've denounced the sitting president and focused on who we'd "honor" next. Washington couldn't wait to step down, writing to Jefferson that "every action of my administration would be tortured ... in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket...." But Washington may have had it easy, compared to modern presidents, subjected as they are to the 24/7 news cycle, the viral power of the Internet, and a population that is politically mobilized and flush with political resources as well as the time to use them.

Maybe our presidential leadership marathons of enchantment followed by disillusion are telling us something. America was, after all, founded on the distrust of leaders. We want our leaders to run the country -- as long as they don't try to run us. We threw out a king, avoided a strong central government with a singular head as long as we could, and even then struggled over what to call him, settling finally on the innocuous (and power-averse) salutation of "Mr. President".

The founders of this nation were not enamored of leadership. In their world -- and the history they drew upon -- leaders were to be feared. They were those who abused power, often for life (King George III) or until overthrown or exiled (Napoleon). The best "leader" to them was Cincinnatus, the humble Roman citizen who took power at the behest of his country and relinquished it to go back to the farm as soon as possible.

This historical experience may explain, in part, why in America anyone in a leadership position is fair game. We regularly bring down not just presidents but lesser political leaders (Nancy Pelosi can relate to this) and corporate titans too. It's in our "civic DNA" to suspect and criticize leaders even as we yearn for them. No sooner do they get to the top than our innate fear of them kicks in.

Even if we could find a leader who has it all, however, our love/hate relationship with leaders may be telling us that we should not be looking for that. The "great man or great woman" model of leadership has serious flaws.

At least at the national level, our problems and possibilities are too many and too complex for one human being to understand and address. Can any president actually handle the myriad domestic and foreign issues that beset American today? Leadership in a republic demands something other than a Lone Ranger on a white horse. Remember, he only stayed at the top by hiding who he was and riding out of town as soon as he could claim any success.

What we need is not the leader, but rather leaders who foster active citizenship from millions of others. We need people who stimulate the creativity, energy and civic dedication of the multitudes, not people who drain it by being magnets that draw attention to their own deeds. Still further, when we focus on the leader, we relinquish much of our own responsibility to bring about the changes we need in our society and ourselves. We need leaders who step back and make us do more of the work. As the Lone Ranger rode off into the sunset, he left it to the town -- as he should have -- to deal with the future, trusting that they were up to it.

So before we engage in the 2012 leadership sweepstakes, perhaps we should give new thought to the qualities we seek in the next president. The charismatic, media savvy, photogenic, rousing speechmaker and overpromising candidate who acts like he or she can lead the country through the force of ideas and talents is not what we should be seeking. Before throwing our passions, our money, and our energy into searching for the president who will take charge and fix us, maybe we should ask what kind of leadership would really be good for an America that must take on more of the responsibility to fix itself.