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Information age spurs new ideas about leadership, educator says. Consensus-style chiefs may outnumber order-givers

Few question President Reagan's leadership ability. But is he more a skillful follower of public opinion than an actual shaper of it? ``Reagan sort of intuitively perceived that people were ready for less government -- he was responding to a felt need already there,'' suggests Harlan Cleveland, dean of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

In Dean Cleveland's view, Reagan also sensed that after two decades of ``trauma,'' including everything from the Vietnam war to the Iranian hostage crisis, Americans were ready to ``feel good'' about themselves and their country again.

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``It was really brilliant political thinking -- which also happened to be very natural to his sunny personality.''

The Minnesotan contends that Reagan's leadership style -- both responsive and persuasive -- is indicative of a revolutionary change ushered in by the information age. Traditional vertical or hierarchical kind of ``giving orders'' leadership is disappearing fast, he says, as many more people have greater access to more information.

In its place is a new horizontal variety that embraces many more leaders and requires broad concensus before ``group decisions'' are reached. ``Policy is made by an upside-down variation of the traditional pyramid of power,'' he says.

During a Monitor interview in the Windy City, Cleveland said he finds it no coincidence that women, often taught consensus-building skills at a young age, are taking on more leadership posts.

In addition to its demand for a different style of action, the new leadership also requires more hard work, he says. ``That's why people who really participate in their communities these days are out almost every night at some committee meeting.''

``We the people know by instinct that in a pluralistic democracy no one is, can, or should be in charge,'' says Cleveland recalling the public reaction of ``nervous laughter'' that reflected neither anger nor reassurance when former Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that he was ``in charge'' after the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981.

Former Rhodes Scholar Cleveland is a forward thinker in the broad spectrum of public policy at a time when most scholars are moving into ever-narrower specialties. As a 1981 co-winner of the Swiss Prix de Talloires, he was hailed as an ``accomplished generalist.''

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A former director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, he also was editor and publisher of The Reporter magazine, a one-time president of the University of Hawaii system, and a former foreign policy official with both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Cleveland views many of the major shifts in this country's foreign and domestic policy over the last 20 years as having ``bubbled up'' from the people themselves. ``If the question is important enough, the people generally get to the answers first,'' he says.

The Minnesotan contends, for instance, that Washington and the so-called experts were the ``last to learn'' that the war in Vietnam had ended and that former President Richard Nixon had ``fumbled his way out of office.''

He says it was largely the American public's concern about nuclear proliferation and safety and its interest in energy conservation that led to ``derailment'' of the nuclear power industry. That concern intensified the national focus on energy conservation and solar power and stepped-up administration interest in arms control, he says.

Those who have emerged as leaders in everything from the civil rights to the consumer movement, he says, have often been ``new'' rather than ``established'' leaders.

``Those with the visible responsibility for leadership are nearly always too visible to take the responsibility for change,'' he says, ``until it becomes more dangerous to stand there than to move on.''

His recently completed book to be published in May ``The Knowledge Executive'' details the shifting concept of leadership.

Unlike precious minerals, fuels, or other traditional resources, the value of information, a readily accessable resource, increases as it is shared and expanded, he says.

In his view, the technological change, and particularly the marriage of computers and telecommunications systems, has effectively wiped out the old concept of power monopolies that control of physical resources and closely held knowledge once made possible.

What kind of citizenship training does the new leadership of the information age require? A much broader base than many students now are getting.

``Our education system is geared more to categorizing and analyzing patches of knowledge than to threading them together,'' says Cleveland.

Many students are hungry for a more integrated approach to learning, he says, and that, in time, could force a change.

He warns that any society failing to make relevant educational opportunities available in coming decades -- including periodic ``tuneups'' -- to all citizens will have a very limited leadership role on the world scene. Such a society will, he contends, be ``left behind in the jet stream of history.''

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