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A member of the U.S. Air Force ROTC was greeted by A Vietnam Veteran (l.) during the Veterans Day parade in New York in 2011. (MIke Segar/Reuters/File)

Warriors with lasting legacies

By Editor / 11.25.13

In the 40 years since the Paris Peace Accords, millions of words have been written about the lessons of Vietnam – the traumatic American military intervention that escalated year by year, cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, and deeply divided the American people.

Shortly after the fall of Saigon, the American diplomat and historian George Kennan saw the lessons of Vietnam as “few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word ‘communism’ and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.” Other thinkers have noted the perils of superpower hubris and the inherent problems democracies have with protracted, inconclusive conflicts. 

In 1987, David Petraeus, an Army major at the time, did his doctoral dissertation on the lessons of Vietnam, noting, among other things, that “when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.” Two decades after his dissertation, as time and patience were running out in Iraq and Afghanistan, it fell to then-General Petraeus to hasten the conclusion of those conflicts.

Historians are now analyzing those wars for their own lessons, which will probably echo Vietnam’s (possibly with the word “terrorism” substituted for the word “communism”) and contain the same caution about determining the importance of American strategic interests before committing combat troops.

Amid all the treatises about postwar geopolitics, popular opinion, and national credibility, the humans caught up in the wars are usually relegated to footnotes. The young men and women who leave home to fight for a nation’s strategic interests are expected to keep the war “over there” when they come home.

In a Monitor cover story, Nissa Rhee focuses on Americans who served in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s and who have been returning to the country to clean up old battlefields and campaign for American aid to help Vietnam cope with lingering problems such as the aftermath of the use of Agent Orange. The Vietnamese have always been surprisingly cordial to these onetime enemies.

While a nation may see a war as a chapter in a history book, to veterans war is personal. It embeds itself in a veteran’s life. “I tell people that I was born in Vietnam,” one veteran told Nissa. “Everything I’ve ever done since leaving Vietnam has been affected by my time here.”

Few of us can know what individual veterans have gone through. My dad, for instance, served in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific during World War II and later in the Korean War. After he retired, he would often regale his children with war stories over Saturday morning pancakes. To kids, war can seem interesting, vivid, even fun. We didn’t know it then, but it eventually became clear that there were stories he wasn’t telling us, that he would never tell us. In that, he was like most veterans who mentally wall off portions of what they experienced.

Veterans do that because they don’t want to bring the war home, because home should be the antithesis of war. The veterans in our cover story take that gallantry to a new level. They are not just retired sightseers reliving the days when they were soldiers once and young. They are a present-day army trying to make a difference where they once made a war. To these old warriors, “over here” and “over there” are not separate places.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Testing, testing: A new CSMonitor.com is on the way. Here's what you'll see.

By Editor / 11.12.13

To our readers:

If you come across a different looking page on our website, it's one of the options we are testing as we redesign CSMonitor.com. 

We'll be unveiling the new look and feel next year. Our goal is to deepen your engagement with The Christian Science Monitor's award-winning journalism, to invite you to read related articles that give you a deeper understanding of the news, and to encourage you to return to our site when you are seeking a calm, thoughtful, solution-oriented approach to what's happening in the world. The Monitor has been publishing those sorts of articles for 105 years. 

To set the stage for our redesign, we started with what we knew about our audience. The live tests we're running will help us create a site designed for you.  With that reader focus in mind, we have developed paths to deeper understanding. You can select a newsletter, for instance, that focuses on an area of interest, or you can click on a health-care reform 101 or get a briefing on nuclear proliferation. We're also developing an option to help you go beyond reading, to take action -- to contribute to disaster relief, to let your elected representative know your opinion on a big issue, to support an activity that seeks to improve your community or the world. The take-action feature is a work in progress. And the Monitor cares about human progress. We even have a regular feature called "Progress Watch." 

You're the judge, of course, but we think our new design will offer you a clean, straight-forward article flow, bolder navigation, and a more contemporary overall approach. We are minimizing interruptions within an article to make the reading experience smoother. And we've updated the navigation to better highlight trending and seasonal topics.

What do you think? What other features might be helpful. Please let us know. Email: http://tinyurl.com/mqjhort

John Yemma

Editor

In this photo, a young boy, no name available, hugs Pope Francis as he delivers his speech during an audience with families in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The 'WYSIWYG' leader

By Editor / 11.03.13

New leaders are like new cars. You can read what the experts say about them, check out their style, and watch how they perform right off the lot. But time is the real test. Style fades. Substance remains.

Will Hassan Rouhani’s policies as the president of Iran be as moderate as his manner seems? Will Chinese leader Xi Jinping root out corruption and boost freedom for 1.4 billion Chinese? Is Pope Francis a new kind of leader who will be able to change a very old church?

Each inherits historical baggage, entrenched bureaucracies, rival factions, and breathtakingly varied opinions about what, if anything, should change. In each case, initial moves are being carefully watched. Mr. Xi, for instance, has declared war on graft and prosecuted a few high-profile cases over the past year, but he has also renewed a crackdown on dissent. 

Libraries are filled with books about change management. Most agree that turning around an established culture requires clear goals, buy-in from stakeholders, transparent decisionmaking, demonstrable wins, and steadiness amid setbacks. If getting-to-know you smiles and good feelings aren’t followed by decisive and successful actions, credibility can be lost.

How can interested observers tell whether the leader behind the fresh face is really a change agent? Most of us rely on the test of time. After Margaret Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984, she said, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” His style, she wrote in her memoirs, “expressed the substance of the personality beneath.” She was right. Gorbachev helped end the cold war and Soviet communism. But after George W. Bush hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001, he observed, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Time has not validated that observation.

And time is often short when trying to judge a new leader. I was among a group of journalists who met Mr. Rouhani recently in New York. He and his entourage were gracious. The Iranian president answered questions frankly. Subsequent diplomatic negotiations were described as productive and encouraging. So the atmospherics seemed good. But skeptics such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been warning that Rouhani is on a charm offensive, hoping to buy time so that Iran can complete its quest for nuclear weapons.

Style can deceive. But style can also influence substance. If Iran’s friendliness is followed by honest dealmaking – and if economic sanctions are eased as a result – a virtuous cycle might set in. Why not be what you appear to be? It’s easier to be consistent than to fake it.

There seems little doubt that Pope Francis is sincerely interested in a less regal and more populist papacy. In his early days in office (see this Monitor Weekly cover story for details), he has forgone finery, the comforts of the Apostolic Palace, and shunned luxury automobiles. The namesake of St. Francis seems to want a Vatican that is more Assisi and less imperial Rome. Among his early moves, he suspended a free-spending German bishop, opened a dialogue with atheists, and said of homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?” 

Roman Catholics and many others are watching with great interest. Church doctrine in areas like the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, and gay marriage remains unchanged. But he’s been in office for only eight months. So far, he’s shown style. We’ll know about the substance in time. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Young friends get set for a hayride at Hillside Farms in Dallas, Pa. (Andrew Krech/The Citizens’ Voice/AP)

Who's responsible for health care?

By Editor / 11.03.13

Most of us carry in our heads the prices we expect to pay for everything from a gallon of gasoline to an Egg McMuffin. If you’ll excuse the wonkiness, pricing is an amazing mechanism. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences thought so, too. It awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics this year to three economists who have delved deeply into how prices work and how reliable they are in decisionmaking.  

Should we buy? Can we make do with what we have? Will life be better after a purchase is made? A huge amount of human activity is involved in setting prices and reacting to them. The more we can get a fix on a price, the better our decisions.

Under way is a quiet revolution in health care that aims to put the price mechanism to work on the $2.8 trillion health-care system in the United States (see this Monitor Weekly cover story for details). Important note: This is not about the controversy raging in Washington and the media about public health-care exchanges to cover the 47 million Americans currently uninsured. It is about health insurance that affects the 150 million Americans with access to an employer-provided health plan.

Transparency about prices creates competition and informs decisionmaking. If you don’t know what something is going to cost, how do you know whether it is better or worse than an alternative? How do you know whether you even want it? As one specialist in the current system told the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius: “Health care is the only place, really, where the person who decides he or she wants something, and the person who delivers it, really don’t even have to talk about what it’s going to cost.”

The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice has extensively examined today’s opaque system. Among its findings: More than 30 percent of US health-care spending is on unnecessary care. Not only that, overcoverage and overdiagnosis hurt more than they help. A 2012 book titled “Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health” describes this problem as “medicalizing life,” meaning interpreting ordinary experiences as diseases and always urging a medical remedy.

The media get some of the blame for promoting fear of disease and indicating that early, aggressive treatment is important (Hippocrates thought otherwise. “Doing nothing,” he wrote, “is sometimes a good remedy.”) Doctors who fear malpractice claims also play a part. They don’t stint on screening, treatment, and prescriptions. And patients with generous health plans often persist in unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, overeating, and not engaging in physical activity. In short, the current system is broken.

To be sure, there is a very real problem for low-income Americans who need but can’t afford treatment. Their safety net until now has been hospital emergency rooms. But it will be important to monitor the Affordable Care Act to see if it can strengthen that net without the unintended consequences of overdiagnosis that have infected so much of the rest of the system.

The private-side health-care revolution should nurture individual responsibility. As people shop for value, they should do what all but the most shopaholic shoppers do: Think about what health care they really need before spending. They might find that within their own closet – within a mental outlook that emphasizes health, happiness, affection, and balance – they already have a possession for which they would pay a great price.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

Children play – technology-free – on the new ‘boundless’ playground in Pasco, Wash. (Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald/AP)

Go with tech's flow -- but also say 'no'

By Editor / 10.21.13

Pliny the Elder almost certainly made Pliny the Younger’s eyes roll when he started a sentence with “When I was a kid.” There’s always a new fad, technology, dance move, turn of phrase, fashion trend, or funky hairstyle that makes kids today seem less respectful, energetic, intelligent, creative, or ambitious than they were back in the day.

Cranking up the Beatles and Beach Boys on the family hi-fi sent my dad up the wall in the 1960s. The preacher at a pal’s church warned young people away from “paperbacks,” meaning books with racy content such as fast driving, jazzy talking, and – possibly, somewhere, actually on page 53, I think – a tame-by-today’s-standards scene or two involving smooching.

It seems there’s always trouble in River City. If it’s not pool halls, it’s comic books. Also: TV, movies, sideburns, bell-bottoms, and pretty much all new music beginning in the 1950s and continuing up to and including what was on the radio this morning. Every new wrinkle brings with it concern about what it is doing to kids today. That this happens again and again doesn’t mean the concerns aren’t valid. Technology is always faster and more frictionless. Standards and values are always being assaulted. What a kid can see on a smart phone ranges from useful to appalling. 

In a Monitor cover story, Stephanie Hanes examines the “touch-screen generation” – children born in the age of the iPad, iPhone, and other devices that have made machine interactivity a near universal experience. With a swipe, flick, or touch, even toddlers can immerse themselves in the world of apps. What this is doing to them varies child by child and family by family. Some kids are going down the rabbit hole of entertainment and amusement. Some are being guided to educational destinations. 

Such mixed outcomes are an old story with new technology. TV has long been a mindless electronic baby sitter in some households, while in others parental guidance and PBS have helped inform and educate. Books and music can distract and titillate but also inspire and connect.

Even the fear that technology is killing the written word has been turned on its head by, well, technology. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that 97 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use their cellphones to text. Within that age group, the median cellphone owner sends or receives 50 messages a day. Facebook, Twitter, Linked
 In, and traditional e-mail account for billions more words. Sure, there’s a lot of shoddy grammar, thematic nonsense, and forced brevity. But ideas are being encoded as words and succinctly communicated. IMHO, that’s something.

Technology is neither good nor bad. You can find constructive apps for kids and websites such as abcya.com and coolmath
 games.com to build literacy and numeracy. But sex, violence, invasion of privacy, and worse are a click away, too. So staying on top of new technology is imperative. Stephanie’s cover story includes five tips for parents on managing a child’s digital engagement.

Child-development specialists recommend that for every minute of tech use children should have at least five minutes of talking to real people and doing things other than tapping and swiping. That’s not a bad ratio for the rest of us, too. After all, we all get bugged scrolling up and down the same old screen.

John Yemma can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.

An archaeologist cleans an inscription on a Mayan sculpture recently discovered in Guatemala, dating to A.D. 600. (Francisco Estrada-Belli/Proyecto Arqueologico Holmul/AP)

What a dig can and can't find

By Editor / 10.15.13

Sometimes a portal opens onto the world of legend. A stone is rolled away from an Egyptian tomb revealing a 3,300-year-old Pharaoh’s power and wealth. A Roman city emerges virtually intact from volcanic ash, its dining tables set for dinner, its comfortable lifestyle interrupted by natural disaster. The mummified body of a Stone Age hunter emerges from a glacier in the Alps, and modern forensics determines from the metallurgy of his ax, his DNA, and the pollen on his clothes that he was the product of a surprisingly sophisticated culture.

With most archaeology, pottery shards and bone fragments provide sketchy evidence of unheralded lives. But even with the abundant material found at places like Pompeii, the stories we tell about lost worlds are speculative. New tools and theories always come along to challenge what we currently think we know.

Then there is the archaeological holy grail, which exists at the intersection of science and faith: the veracity of the biblical account. Bible archaeology fascinates Jews, Christians, and many Muslims, as well as historians and anyone who studies and cares about the Middle East or, for that matter, Western civilization. For centuries, believers and skeptics alike have wondered if Bible history was accurate, if facts underpinned belief or if it was sufficient to extract spiritual meaning from myth and metaphor. 

Take the story of David. Was his a writer’s tale of youthful heroism, adult treachery, and the quest for redemption recorded in those sublime psalms? That could make it a Canaanite version of Homeric myth. But David’s words and deeds support the monotheistic brand, the argument that the one God should be “exalted among the nations.” How has his story come to be so influential if he was just a wordsmith, if he wasn’t perhaps a great king? So did his life unfold more or less as the Bible says? 

In this a Monitor cover story, Christa Case Bryant takes us to an archaeological site southwest of Jerusalem where investigators have been sifting through what appears to be evidence of a Hebrew kingdom 3,000 years ago. What they’ve found (and haven’t found: no cultic figurines, no pig bones) might support the belief of a united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon that stretched from the Sinai to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to beyond the Jordan River.

Even for secularists, that 10th-century BC kingdom is important. It is a part of the historical case for the Jewish return to the Holy Land. So you can see some of the implication of the dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Few other cultures have as enduring a literary-historical tradition as that found in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that individuals in other cultures didn’t experience the inspiration and drive for moral improvement that the Bible, at its best, advocates and chronicles. In almost every part of the world, we make our homes atop the remains of earlier people. The hopes and dramas, affections and beliefs of those past lives can also be winkled from the traces they leave in the strata. 

All the stories we reconstruct require leaps of faith and a healthy regard for the provisional nature of what we know. But even as science helps us see more of our ancestry, we are unlikely to find hard evidence connecting human with divine. It takes a different kind of digging – using faith, not trowels – to arrive at what the psalmist called the “secret place of the most High.”

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

The quest for energy security: long, slow, increasingly successful

By Editor / 10.06.13

Have you noticed this pattern when dealing with a complex, intractable problem? You work through all the variables – some of which you control, most of which you don’t. You furrow your brow, break a dozen pencils, hit your head against multiple walls, and frequently drift into magical thinking about a breakthrough that wipes the problem out.

Even if the best minds of a generation keep at it, the problem persists. Then one day, you look around and realize that the problem is gone.

That’s the way the energy crisis seemed. After almost a century of abundant fossil fuel, supplies tightened in the early 1970s, prices soared, economies staggered, and that looked like the future as far as the eye could see. Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war.” Oh sure, maybe someone could dream up a breakthrough – the “cold fusion” device that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced in 1989, for instance. But like the “Mr. Fusion” engine in the movie “Back to the Future,” that was fantasy. Year after year, the energy problem remained unsolved.

Have you looked around lately? You already know that hydraulic fracturing, while controversial, has revolutionized gas and oil extraction in the United States and other parts of the world. Solar arrays and wind turbines are popping up everywhere. There are promising new nuclear technologies under development. And a Monitor cover story, David Unger shows you an especially unheralded energy revolution that has crept up on us.

It sounds a little dull to call it by its traditional name: conservation. This is conservation with brains. Some call it the “enernet” revolution because it is driven by a combination of Internet, microelectronics, more-efficient devices, and fast feedback of real-time data. The result: dramatic savings in electricity and fossil fuel for businesses and consumers. And it is a trend that is only in its infancy. Tech, data, and energy management improve continuously.

This is big. And it is big precisely because it isn’t magical. It is the application of smart technology to everything from power grids to home thermostats. By networking these devices, data can be rapidly analyzed and energy precisely deployed. One vivid example: lights that come on in a warehouse just as a forklift is rolling by. Why light the whole building throughout the day?

The energy-efficiency revolution is the way most progressive revolutions unfold. There were no parting clouds and trumpet blasts. Millions of people applied themselves, swapped ideas, combined and recombined them, tested, measured, learned – and then rinsed and repeated. While some had noble motives, self-interest has done the heavy lifting: Big money is being saved through intelligent energy management.

So what other complex, intractable problems might be making imperceptible progress? Humanity has a long list: climate change; economic stagnation; disease of body and mind; religious intolerance; oppression based on race, sex, ethnicity, or place of origin. There’s no reason to expect such problems to be solved overnight. There’s every reason to keep at the problem solving – and to expect that one day we’ll look up and notice that today’s overwhelming worries have all but disappeared.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.

A new way to read the Monitor Weekly

By Editor / 09.21.13

Here’s a trick anybody can do: Slip a sheaf of papers into a metal box in Anchorage, Alaska, or Oslo, Norway, and a few days later it will be in someone’s hands in Cape Town, South Africa, or Albuquerque, N.M.

OK, you’ll need a stamp, but what the postal service does is still something of a miracle. On foot, horseback, train, planes, and trucks, postal carriers have faithfully delivered the news around the world since the days of Cyrus the Great. Herodotus marveled about how undeterred these couriers were by snow, rain, heat, or darkness.

Paper needs to be hand-delivered. Information doesn’t, not in the Digital Age. And a news magazine is information.

Wait. I know what you’re thinking. The next sentence isn’t going to announce that the Monitor is leaving print behind. We’re committed to print. But we have a request: Take a look at our new Monitor Weekly digital edition. It’s free to Monitor print subscribers, it takes full advantage of digital delivery, and – yes, I’ll say it – it is faster and richer and more economical to produce than the print version.

If you have a tablet (an iPad running iOS 6 or later or an Android device running OS 4 or later), you can download an app from Apple’s App Store or Google Play. No tablet? Go to
 CSMonitor.com/CSMApp, click “manage your account,” fill in the subscriber form, and then click on “current issue.” That’s not as smooth an experience as on an app, but it is still timely and accessible wherever you are. And here’s what the new app features:

•Fast access. At 5 a.m. on the Wednesday before the cover date (for the Sept. 30 issue, that would mean Sept. 25) a new Monitor Weekly is ready to read. That makes the publication more timely and more consistently available than if it arrived via mail. It makes the magazine available at the same time everywhere in the world.

•A new feature called The Daily Feed that keeps you updated on important Monitor news and features. This lets you read the weekly while staying in touch with current events.

•New navigation that gives you tips on browsing, shows you where you are in the magazine, lets you view pages and photos (much more vivid when backlighted) in portrait and landscape aspects, and makes it easier to move among sections and articles.

You can also bookmark articles, check out slide shows and movie trailers, follow links from our book reviews to buy a book, and e-mail a letter to the editor. And archives to past issues are only a tap away. We think this is a superior reading experience with enhancements that can’t be provided in print. 

Whether you prefer the print or digital edition, you are supporting The Christian Science Monitor, with its unique mission to report clearly and compassionately on humanity’s sometimes difficult, often inspiring quest for freedom.

So, while we stand behind the print version of the Monitor Weekly, we hope you’ll agree that our digital app is a lively, timely, versatile way to read the Monitor Weekly. Wherever you are in the world, you can use the Monitor to stay current and go far. 

Black Hat (Hacker) conference attendees listened to a speech By the head of the NSA July 31 in Las Vegas. (Isaac Brekken/AP)

Cyber war: Different look, same aim

By Editor / 09.21.13

War is an overused word. Real war – as opposed to “war” in the form of a football game, neighborhood spat, political debate, or public campaign against litter, illiteracy, poverty, or mosquitoes – is humanity at its worst. I’ve never fought in a war, but I have seen it up close on several occasions, most vividly in Lebanon in 1982. If civilization is the year-by-year building of families, communities, commerce, and art – the hum of life at cafes and shops, schools and playgrounds – then war is anti-civilization. It is a machine that hurts people and breaks things.

Because large portions of life now take place on the Internet, the introduction of war into cyberspace was perhaps inevitable. In a Monitor cover story, Anna Mulrine examines the Pentagon’s increasing emphasis on cyberwarfare. The number of specialists able to defend US computer networks – and thus the power grids, financial systems, and critical infrastructure of the nation – and also, if necessary, attack the networks of rivals, is programmed to increase fivefold by 2015. 

As with most Defense Department projects, spending on cyberwar is ballooning under the “better safe than sorry” rubric. No one wants to be caught by surprise. And as with nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers, and drone fleets, the more impressive the cyberwarfare capabilities, the more they serve as a deterrent and persuader, even if never activated.

What’s not clear is whether the threat of cyberwarfare is still largely science fiction. Most hostile cyber-acts so far have been small and hard to pull off. The Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iranian centrifuges in 2010 was cleverly configured (probably by Israeli and American intelligence agencies). Stuxnet may have set Iran’s nuclear program back by a year or so, but it didn’t stop it. Iran in all likelihood now has taken countermeasures. Similarly, denial-of-service attacks that bring down websites by flooding them with traffic are a nuisance but hardly the stuff of shock and awe. The hacks carried out by groups such as Anonymous and the Syrian Electronic Army are more vandalism than acts of war.

Most experts see cyberwarfare circa 2013 as a niche capability. Referring to what is believed to have been an Israeli air raid on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, a recent RAND Corp. strategic study described cyber capabilities as “better suited to one-shot strikes (e.g., to silence a surface-to-air missile system and allow aircraft to destroy a nuclear facility under construction) than to long campaigns (e.g., to put constant pressure on a nation’s capital).” 

Wars don’t always start dramatically, as World War II did for the United States on Dec. 7, 1941. They more often evolve, as they have in Syria since 2011, one bad deed leading to another. What we’re seeing with the new emphasis on cyberwarfare looks like the early days of air warfare in World War I – when fragile biplanes carried out showy, ineffective attacks. But as with any warmaking skill, cyberwar is likely to become more efficient and deadly in time. The US Cyber Command and the 24th Air Force have, in effect, added a fifth theater to the military’s land, sea, air, and space capabilities.

War is something that humans still have to learn – at the least, for self-defense and to halt injustice. But war, even in cyberspace, still has one age-old purpose: to hurt people and break things.  

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

A worker transported ballot boxes in Erfurt, Germany, Sept. 6; German elections are Sept. 22. (Jens Meyer/AP)

Is this the era of the 'quiet leader?'

By Editor / 09.20.13

Forceful leaders are often known by only one name – Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin. They often pick up suffixes like “the great,” “the magnificent,” or “the conqueror.” They’ve got style. They’re bold, charismatic. They exult in glory, crave applause, and specialize in grand gestures. These guys (they’re usually guys) bestride the narrow world and change the course of history – though not always for the better.

In a Monitor cover story, Sara Miller Llana profiles a leader who is arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Germany’s Angela Merkel, as you’ll see, is cut from a different cloth. She is quiet, and she listens, works incrementally, and rarely makes a show of her leadership. A scientist by training, she grew up in the straitened society of East Germany. 

The Germany she leads is the economic engine of Europe – which is making the Germany-dominated European Union, despite ongoing debt and austerity issues, a globally competitive organization of 500 million people.

Crucially, the woman who looks set to serve a third term as Germany’s chancellor is cautious. Like most Germans, she has a fundamental understanding of the problems of overreaching and the poison of personality. Like most East Germans, she knows that nations are not forever. 

Those qualities of quiet leadership are the same ones distilled by Joseph Badaracco, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied this form of leadership (see “Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing”). Quiet leaders, he says, are known for their patience, care, and incrementalism. Albert Schweitzer is one example. Dr. Schweitzer believed that public action was overrated and that small and obscure deeds mattered most. The sum of them, he said, “is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition.”

Even heroic figures, Professor Badaracco notes, often do an enormous amount of organizing and consensus-building that is overshadowed by their dramatic moment on the world stage. He suggests we not concentrate so much on great figures and riveting events. Instead, he says, pay attention to people who are working on complex tasks, who shun oversimplification, let others take credit, and understand that they must navigate uncertainty. 

“The world is so complex and frustrating that it is natural that people want someone who cuts through all that,” Badaracco says. But while decisiveness is cool, carefulness can be better. Even delay can be a virtue if the time is used for intelligent analysis and consensus-building.

Boring, right? There aren’t a lot of epic poems or blockbuster movies about quiet leaders. But you know them when you see the organizations, businesses, and countries they lead – collections of creative individuals living and working at high levels of productivity, purpose, and contentment. Which is not an argument for laissez-faire leadership. There still has to be a decider and buck-stopper. A leaderless organization drifts. Pre-Napoleon France and Weimar Germany show the danger of drift. A quiet leader like Angela Merkel wants neither drama nor drift.

Quiet leaders are totally engaged even if they are almost invisible. To see them, look at the people they lead.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. You can reach him at editor@csmonitor.com.

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