Hubris and Nemesis
Let’s say that you were in a position of leadership in a country I’ll call Precaria — as an intellectual, a politician, a CEO, whatever. Precaria was remarkable, unique, special, in a bad way: it was the world’s first rich failed state. It was plagued by regular mass killings, falling life expectancy, no savings, falling income, a rising tide of authoritarianism, and the resurgence of the actual plague.
Every other rich country in the world was more successful than Precaria. At being a society: expanding the limits of human potential. Enabling people to live happy, healthy, sane, long lives full of creativity, grace, mercy, dreams, justice, truth, love.
What would — should — you do? The first thing a sane leader should do is: learn from the rest of the world, because it’s more successful in every way. Here are some things you could learn.
You could learn from Germany’s Mittelstand, that it’s economic strength is based on clusters of medium sized companies, which are protected by the government — not from competition, but with decent wages, benefits, and work hours. You could learn from France’s agricultural system, in which private farms and vineyards and so on must receive cooperative certifications to make high-quality goods the world demands, like fine wine, champagne, and cheese. You could learn from Australia’s compulsory voting systems, with ranked, not just binary, ballots. You could learn from the story of Britain’s NHS — born in post-war chaos, the world’s first real public healthcare system, which lifted quality of life tremendously.
You could learn. So much. So fast. Because it is a big and beautiful and brave world, full of remarkable societies doing amazing things. Expanding the limits of human potential in unique, different, and often radical ways.
Precaria is in my little thought experiment, of course, America. And the point it’s there to raise is this: why don’t American leaders ever learn? Why can’t they?
Let me make that more concrete. The rest of the rich world is more successful at expanding human potential — the first job of a society. Why? Because they have social contracts that work in fundamentally better ways: that offer people more health, happiness, creativity, productivity, and so on. Those social contracts are brought to life by real world institutions — like the NHS or Mittelstand’s various economic bodies.
Yet almost never in my adult life have I read a single op ed in American media examining any of those institutions. Not a single one, about a single one that I can remember. American is unable to learn from the world. And that is probably because American leaders are playing a game of psychological defense. They think they are exceptional — and for an exceptional organization, it is beneath dignity to (horror) learn from anyone else.
In psychology, we have a name for that way of thinking. Narcissism. The belief not just that one is special — for we all are unique, different, remarkable. The belief that one is superior, above, beyond. Better in fundamental ways. That is never true. Not a single one of us is better in any fundamental way. The genius is poor at loving. The lover is poor at creating. The creator is poor at managing. And so on. We all have flaws. But the greatest flaw of all is to be blind to the grace and beauty of the idea that we all have flaws — and so to believe there is nothing to be learned from anyone else. Trump is a narcissist, sure — but he is only a reflection of American narcissism in this way.
The first job of a leader is to learn. Only then can a leader do their second and third jobs — care and love. Leadership is nothing more — and nothing less — than realizing human potential. You can do it as a parent, boss, friend, partner. You probably do. That is what care and love are in concrete human terms. The difference between them is that care brings a person towards their potential, and love expands that potential.
So leadership demands the opposite of hubris, which is what America has too much of today. Humility, simplicity, modesty. Only when one stops pretending one knows can one learn. Arrogance blinds us to human possibility itself. The flipside is also true. What do we call people and organizations that can’t learn? Foolish. And the world laughs at America today because it is foolish in this achingly visible way.
So when we say that Americans have a leadership deficit, we don’t simply mean that America is run by freaks with a predilection for crazy religious theories and guns. More genuinely, we mean that those theories, and more importantly, the hubris behind them, leave them incapable of learning from the world about what leadership is. How then can human potential be realized? It can’t — and that’s why American life expectancy, savings, the middle class, security, opportunity, and so on, are all shrinking, dwindling, falling. That is what human potential decaying is.
Until and unless America develops leaders who are capable of learning from the world about what a successful society is, it’s going to go on incapable of being one. Hubris has met nemesis, as in the old myth. The name of hubris is American exceptionalism, a kind of blinding arrogance — and the nemesis it has produced is foolishness: an inability to learn a single thing from the world that now laughs at it pityingly.