The Great War of 1914-18—it became the First World War only in tragic retrospect—was the seminal event of the 20th century. Its after-effects reverberate in our day.
One might argue that the 20th century actually began with the war in 1914, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If so, then one might characterize World War I as the 75-Year War.
The Great War and its immediate aftermath (including the flu pandemic) consumed 37 million casualties.
As shocking as the absolute number is, consider what it would mean in today’s terms. In 1920 the population of the earth was approaching two billion; by contrast, today that number has passed seven billion. By a conservative accounting, that would translate into more than a hundred million casualties in our time.
At the outset of a new century, it may be useful to reflect upon leadership lessons that the Great War provides.
Just as the war affected aspects of life far beyond the battlefield, its leadership lessons have resonance far beyond wartime.
Am I alone in sensing an uptick in focus on the anniversary of the dreadful terror attacks of 9-11-2001?
I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. —John McCain, farewell message, August 2018
John McCain was a devotee of Theodore Roosevelt. Like TR, he strove to serve his nation throughout his life and work.
Where can we find them?
The premise–stated or unstated–is that there’s a leadership gap today.
Who can argue against the spectacular failures of leadership in large institutions? They range from the White House and Congress (whether in the hands of the Democrats or Republicans); to Wall Street and back around to Main Street; in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors (including religious institutions); around the world.
It’s easy–perhaps too easy–to find reason for disappointment. And yet… there is also reason for optimism.
It’s often said that these are among the worst of times for leadership… it’s also, arguably, the best of times.
This list is updated quarterly. Please send your suggestions of other inspiring 21st century leaders.