GREAT leaders keep an eye on the next goal rather than become absorbed in today's difficulties. Circumstances are not allowed to define what is possible. The immediate is permitted no veto on effort. As a result, events yield to inspired vision.
This principle, that events submit to leadership, certainly was evident in the great Allied invasion of Normandy 40 years ago this week. So many things had to go right for the liberating forces that how it all came together still inspires those who took part.
After D-Day the leaders of the West who defined and won the peace, rebuilt Europe, and created the major post-World War II institutions - the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the GATT structure for world trade, the World Bank - similarly did not pause over the rubble of the war but looked ahead to a better world order. Churchill, whose rallying oratory, recorded on tape and film, still powerfully energizes a listener as it did the British during the dark war years, or Eisenhower, a hesitant speaker who nonetheless communicated a clear sense of an American military strength dedicated to a unified West and world peace - such men, among others, represented what leadership is all about.
This week the West's leaders meet again in London for what is nominally called the yearly ''economic summit.'' We all know the short list of major issues that will be put on the table for discussion, if not action. The issues are linked - a high US deficit pushes up interest rates, which leads to an overvalued dollar and an influx of capital from abroad, while debtor nations find high interest rates and lowered trade make it tough to reduce their debt. Oddly enough, Washington, whose US economy is again the engine of the Western economic recovery, has no intention of dealing with these issues comprehensively until after the November election. The White House candidly acknowledges it has shut down its economic planning operation until 1985.
Western Europe appears to be on hold, too. The Common Market labors to overcome a lull in the pull of unity. The West Germans were disappointed that Chancellor Helmut Kohl was not invited to this week's D-Day observance in France , which they took as a tendency still to commemorate the past rather than look to the future. Mr. Kohl now echoes French President Francois Mitterrand's call for greater political cooperation in the European Economic Community - moving from ''a free trade zone'' toward ''a United States of Europe.''
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has helped negotiate an end to white rule in Rhodesia and is working out a British exit from Hong Kong. Will she commit her formidable negotiating powers to the ''window of opportunity'' some see opening on the Northern Ireland issue?
And for the summiters themselves: Do they notice that, except for Japan, they constitute a white North Atlantic club? The fastest growing and in many ways most capitalistic nations today - territories like South Korea and Taiwan - are absent. Should not the summiters acknowledge the emerging Pacific-Atlantic axis in the global economy? Is it enough that countries like Canada and France must represent the interests of third-world nations, as the Northern powers again tend to be unmindful of the globe's less developed South?
On East-West matters, the summiters appear more troubled by a dread of a common enemy, the Kremlin, than inspired by a common enthusiasm for peace.
The publics of free nations on the European, American, and Asian land masses welcome their leaders getting together to discuss global issues. They truly pray that their leaders will rise above a mere rehearsal of today's challenges, above endless analysis that can induce a feeling of impasse, and assert a positive vision that makes of circumstances a servant, not a master.