Needed: 21st Century Leaders for an Open World

Photo CC Al Jazeera 2011

On Thursday and Friday I attended some Social Media Week events in New York. It was an amazing experience—not just because of the great topics and smart speakers, but because we practiced what was being preached. A fair number of audience members used laptops, iPads or smart phones during the presentations, live tweeting what was being said on stage and their own responses. Some speakers addressed questions posed via Twitter while on stage, while others took more conventional routes such as hand-raising and comments written on index cards.

Thursday I spent most of my time at a long but fascinating presentation on “Open UN: Engagement in the Age of Real-Time.”  Unfortunately, when I perused the program handout prior to the start of the talk I noticed that Vodafone Foundation was a sponsor. It was the Foundation, not the corporation, and I’m sure sponsorship was arranged long before Vodafone cooperated with the Mubarak regime in shutting down communications in Egypt—but it still was jarring. (Yes, they were pressured; many people thought they should have resisted a little more. In the end, it didn’t much matter.) The larger world was infringing on our snug auditorium with the wi-fi and a refreshment table in the lobby outside.

Before the panel discussions the moderator, David Brancaccio, instructed the audience to raise their hands in a “time-out” T shape if anyone got news about the speech Hosni Mubarak was supposed to give. If he stepped down during the talk, it would take precedence. Unfortunately for the Egyptian people, Mubarak’s speech that day was as clueless as he previous ones had been.

As clueless as Mubarak, Egyptian VP Omar Suleiman blamed the civil unrest on “television and radio.” How amazingly out of touch! While much of the technologically advanced world debated whether or not this should be called the “Twitter Revolution,” he focused on technologies invented more than seven decades ago.

Six Al Jazeera reporters were detained and their equipment seized, the Egyptian government revoked the station’s broadcast license, and their television signal was blocked. Apparently the 20th century bureaucracy didn’t realize that the station continued its broadcasts in other nations and was available worldwide (in Arabic, English and other languages) on the Internet. Reports of the democracy protests in Egypt were top news stories in almost every democratic (and a few not so democratic) country outside Egypt.

The Egyptian government’s time would have been better spent watching Al Jazeera than attempting to block it: they might have figured out why their citizens were so enraged. Instead they planted their heads firmly in the desert sands and got run over by the modern world.

A tweet (naturally) summed up the situation with an insightful joke: “”Mubarak dies and meets Sadat and Nasser in the afterlife. They ask him: Poisoned or assassinated? He replies: ‘Facebook.'”

Multiple communications technologies make it nearly impossible to stop the spread of information. If one channel is shut down, people will switch to another… and another… and another.

Egypt’s revolution was not only about Facebook or Twitter. Bloggers contributed, independent news media contributed, people used text messaging, cell phones and even landlines to circumvent government shut-downs. Technology makes international communication easy and almost instantaneous. It is not enough to control communication within one’s own borders; the world is watching. Once a news story escapes into the wild and “goes viral” it is impossible for a government to control.

Who, then, would I pick as a model for 21st century head of state? Barack Obama with his Blackberry, or autographing an iPad for an admirer, comes to mind. But President Obama has it easy; he isn’t fighting the kind of internal struggle for democratization that many nations face. He’s a model of a 21st century leader whose country has already arrived. In countries that are still struggling with democracy and development, it’s not so important that leaders know how to use e-mail, Twitter or Facebook; it’s only important they understand that their citizens do and the implications for repressive governments.

My choice is a late 20th century head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev. He guided the Soviet Union through Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness), through a mostly peaceful and non-nuclear disintegration of the USSR and end of the Cold War. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t perfect—but if you had asked most Americans (and probably most Soviet citizens) only a few years earlier if the Soviet Union could be broken up without a war, and probably a nuclear war, few would have believed it.

Gorbachev embraced openness and a move towards democracy, although it eventually cost him his job and even his nation. He conceded a peaceful break-up rather than risk a damaging war. The Middle East needs a few new Gorbachevs. So does much of the developing world. China definitely needs a Gorbachev; they have achieved perestroika (economic restructuring and development) while the Great Firewall blocks citizens’ access to technology, communication and information.

We’re barely a decade into the 21st century; it is too early to say what and how much a role technology and communications will play in world affairs. But it is a safe bet that they will play a significant role of some kind, and leaders who fail to acknowledge the fact will face the same fate as the Mubarak regime: “Poison or assassination?” No, communications technology.

This is another post in the #UsBlogs collaborative project; this week’s theme is “The 21st Century Leader.” For more information about #UsBlogs and #UsGuys, visit or follow the #UsGuys hashtag on Twitter.

9 thoughts on “Needed: 21st Century Leaders for an Open World

  1. Todd Jordan February 18, 2011 / 10:24 am

    Incredibly thoughtful.

    Gorbachev as model leader?! This post gave me new respect for the man. He worked hard at moving his country forward and sacrificed much.

    Leaders today need to refocus on going somewhere not whipping the horses so much. Vision and motion, enabled by the modern miracles of communication.

    Love the theme – they will find a way.



    • Karen E. Lund February 18, 2011 / 11:15 am

      Thanks for the comment, Todd.

      At the time I don’t think the US realized what Gorbachev accomplished. In retrospect, to have steered the Soviet Union through its break-up without a long, bloody and possibly nuclear war is more than any of us would have expected. He was certainly not perfect, but perhaps it was his willingness to be imperfect (unlike many autocratic dictators who insist upon being right, even when they’re most certainly wrong) that made it possible.



  2. Paula Lee Bright February 15, 2011 / 5:11 pm

    What an amazing way to bring Gorbachev back full circle! I had never thought of him in quite that way, despite knowing all the same things you set out here so well. I feel that I didn’t give enough credit when it was due at that time.He really was brave, wasn’t he? Bucking that massive stone wall that was the USSR.

    Egypt was amazing too. I feared so deeply for them, and felt sure they’d be knocked down and crucified. What a relief when they weren’t. Now to wait…and wait…to see if democracy really arrives. Fingers crossed.

    Great post, Karen, and what a terrific way to bind the past and the present together, with the added spice of technology thrown in. Bravo!


    • Karen E. Lund February 18, 2011 / 11:33 am


      A week after Mubarak’s resignation democracy seems to be spreading through the Middle East and North Africa. We can only cross our fingers and hope–communications may have speeded some parts of the protest movement, but establishing democratic governments will take time. Still, I can’t help thinking that once the word has gone out and people know they are not alone in wanting greater freedom and opportunity, it will be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

      I’ve never lived under a repressive government (thank goodness) but imagine that many people must live “lives of quiet desperation” imagining they are alone and afraid to tell anyone about their dissatisfaction. If there’s one thing social media can do, it’s show people that others share their hopes. Once they know they aren’t alone, I should think it gives them greater courage to act.

      Thanks for your thoughts,



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