THE 1990s are an extraordinary time for leaders. The world order of the past 25 years is over. The oceans of history are stirred by elemental forces of freedom and self-determination. Last year we read about ``The End of History.'' Now history is reborn. Fundamental change is taking place in Europe, Africa, Asia. Leaders are needed to guide people through rough and uncharted waters. One change in the old leadership formula is ``the people'' themselves. This fall in Prague and Bucharest, in Budapest and Leipzig, it was average citizens who set the course of history, as if confirming the adage that ``When the people lead, the leaders will follow.'' Blood in Tiananman and Timisoara show the inverse - that for many leaders, leadership is the will to stay in power, whatever the cost.
The central leadership figure on the world scene today is Mikhail Gorbachev. Criticize him for playing Germany off the allies, for failing to keep socialism alive and his economy intact. Still, no other postwar figure has so altered the political landscape. Gorbachev took the risks. He set in motion the wheels of perestroika. Experts have said for years he wouldn't last one month, yet time and again he has turned crises to his advantage. Two weeks ago, Gorbachev's future hung in the balance; but he emerged from the Central Committee plenum with a multiparty promise, and more power.
Lech Walesa, who mortally wounded communism in 1980, is, by contrast, a man of the people. Czech Vaclev Havel shows that the modern schism between the prophet-poet and the manager-technocrat need not be final.
The Middle East, regrettably, lacks at the moment the visionary leadership to structure a solution to its chronic disputes.
Mediating the tension between unity and pluralism is a principal leadership challenge of the '90s. David Dinkins, the new mayor of New York, knows this. Still, the most vivid case is South Africa, where Nelson Mandela must address white fears and end violent anarchy among blacks. He must transcend tribalism. President De Klerk has bravely taken his mandate far beyond the majority expectations of whites.
Abraham Lincoln is the example here - the leader-servant who sensed, in the ``mystic chords of memory,'' emerging strains of justice and mercy. He found the right position and stayed, come what may. Harriet Beecher Stowe said Lincoln's strength was not that of stone, but a ``wire cable - swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end.'' The '90s demand such strength.