Every achievement in my teens and 20s, from getting into the high school I wanted, to getting into a plush corporate job I yearend for, was crowned by having an earnest, respectable elder telling me that I was the future of and destined to lead this or that organisation.
Each time I heard this spiel, in Belgrade, Warwick, Oxford and London, I felt the high of my ego expanding and daydreaming of the greatness to come.
However, with time, as my fellow future leaders and I progressed on the proverbial greasy pole of global society, these words started sounding increasingly hollow and even jarring.
I realised that leadership most of us, consciously or unconsciously, displayed was in making the pole even greasier and protecting systems we once wanted to improve. Despite many elegant empathic claims to the opposite, the goal for the most of us was never to do anything with this “leadership” except to enjoy the spoils of leadership.
While this was, almost by definition, true of the majority of us who ended up in banks, corporates, and consultancies, it was also tragically true of those who did not “sell out” so openly and ended up leading, often with displaying excessive pride, in non-profits, media, advocacy groups and academia.
Naturally, I came to believe that there is probably no worse idea than having a group of (more often than not) privileged ambitious young people in a room and telling them that they are the future of the world and that they are destined to lead it.
Most of these well-meaning, and immensely flattering speeches, glossed over the fact that leadership by hyperconfident people with little and unvaried life experience probably can only spell disaster, and that the path to real service requires humility, strong sense of morality, empathy and sacrifice rather than just using ones smarts and unbridled ambition to take you to the top.
After all, in Serbia and the rest of former Yugoslavia, it was the apparatchiks, former pre-destined “young leaders” of its ruling communist party, who managed to dismantle my country so effectively and bloodily, most of them running on hyper-confidence in their right judgement and good intentions. More recently, in Britain, it was those with gilded biographies, polished at its best universities, who plunged it into the current instability.
And yet, this June, after a long while, I found myself attending a Generation Democracy conference for young leaders around the world in Washington DC, organised by the IRI, which was a much-needed and surprisingly sobering experience.
During the three days I spent with almost 50 people from around the world, I was stunned.
I was surrounded by something that I feared no longer existed: young, ambitious people who took many sacrifices for the causes for they believed would improve their societies.
In this short time, I heard stories of courageous struggle, immense creativity, as well as patient, persistence wonkishness (mostly) undiluted by the all too common group-think and clichés. Most poignantly, even when faced with great repression and personal risk, my fellow ‘young leaders’ expressed a lot of hope and admiration for own communities and countries, something that was unfortunately sorely missing in a lot of civil society organisations I came in contact with, especially in Serbia.
Given the geographical and political diversity, I realised that I was missing a lot nuance in thinking about things I was dead certain I had a nuanced view on and, of course, once again realised how little I knew about the world which lies outside the constant spotlight of globalised media
The key message which I took from our meeting in DC, was that often forgotten obstacle for any real improvement of communities (however you understand it) is the pervasive (well-founded) sense of cynicism about the possibility of improvement and especially those constantly promising it.
Whichever series of disappointing individual and societal experiences with “leadership” and “civic change” one endured, paralysing cynicism about the possibility and point of change only helps the status quo and the hateful hypocrites upholding it win, and makes those bushy-tailed overachievers with better ideas and pure(r) motives give up on fighting feel powerless. As this experience taught me, the best way to escape it, is reaching out and opening up the few truly excellent people who made a difference, and then trying to actually do something, no matter how small or crazy, unencumbered by ego or fear.