It's not only what you want, but how
On setting the ten steps from where you are to where you want to be -- whether you're trying to end climate change, contain Covid-19, or do anything else worthwhile
One of the most exceptional documentary series of the modern era was "The Commanding Heights", which came out in 2002. The short series laid out the essence of the 20th Century contest between free markets and Communism, and identified the long, consequential path to a largely globalized economy.
■ In particular, one of the most notable moments featured in the documentary is Margaret Thatcher's visit to Gdansk to meet with the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement. In a moment she had most likely considered in advance, Thatcher implored the Solidarity leaders not only to know what they wanted, but how they expected to get there.
■ Thatcher's words make for unbeatable advice: "How do you see the process from where you are now to where you want to be? [...] It's not only what you want, but how -- the practical way you see it coming about." She trails off into a recommendation phrased as a hypothetical event: "[W]rite down the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be."
■ What Thatcher understood deeply was the old maxim: "A dream without a plan is just a wish." And she knew that the difference between those mattered, not only for those with power, but for those around whom power hadn't coalesced yet. More than most other things masquerading as aspects of leadership, the essence of leadership is the plan -- whether ten steps or a few more or less -- and the ability to transmit that plan as a vision which others can share.
■ Thatcher may be out of vogue among those who spend their time railing against the purported "neoliberal consensus", but her essential advice really ought to prevail in some of our most vital debates today.
■ As the UN Climate Change Conference proceeds in Glasgow, there will be talk of achieving climate-change goals like "accelerat[ing] the phase-out of coal" and "accelerat[ing] action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society". Those may be fine goals, but the events of "COP26" will remain esoteric and inaccessible to the general public unless translated into those clear, practical "ten steps from where you are to where you want to be".
■ Determining those steps -- and making them sufficiently achievable that people can actually recognize the changes and measure the progress toward them -- is up to individual leaders in particular countries. It's up to national-level leaders to outline a clear set of achievable steps and then relentlessly beat the drum on the march to their achievement.
■ The same goes for problems like Covid-19. Part of the fatigue that has set in -- and some of the bad blood that has developed -- is because we in the United States really haven't coalesced around a well-articulated vision of what it means to achieve incremental victories along the way to making the disease retreat from "life-altering emergency" to "persistent nuisance". It's obvious that eradication isn't likely to occur (hence the talk of shifting from "pandemic" to "endemic"), but we need to have mileposts along the way.
■ Those mileposts -- like achieving a 60% adult vaccination rate or developing an antiviral drug to make the disease survivable under most conditions -- are crucial for telling people that progress is being made, and for rewarding their commitment to sacrifices along the way. Scientists may need to be cautious, but public leaders need to be able to set achievable goals around the science so that issues like "forever masking" don't become flashpoints that sap the initiative to keep moving ahead.
■ Michael Bloomberg once wrote that "Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle." He was talking mainly about business advice, but it turns out the advice applies to other aspects of life, too. We intrinsically need to know not only where we're going, but how we're going to get there. And, especially on a long path, we need to know that we're making progress along the way. Politicians don't have to agree with Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy to take a page from her playbook. Most certainly, they should.