Everybody, friend and foe, seems to agree that President Donald Trump exhibits what many call "unconventional leadership." It may come as a surprise to learn that the very part of the world regarding which Trump shows us that unconventional leadership, namely Turkey, gave the world a leader a little more than a century ago who showed us a style of leadership that would make a stadium full of Donald Trumps rise in standing applause. Let's begin with another example of unconventional leadership so you can see what I mean.
For centuries, beginning long before the invention of the automobile, Swedes drove on the left-hand side of the road! When the automobile came to replace the horse and buggy, Swedes stubbornly held onto left-hand driving. The authorities recognized that the advent of the automobile was the logical way to shift over to right-hand traffic, but (like politicians everywhere!) they continued with left-hand traffic even knowing full well there'd one day be hell to pay, and that self-inflicted hell got hotter and hotter with every day of absurd delay. Sweden has land borders with Norway and Finland, and you can throw in Denmark, which is separated by very little yardage of water. All of them drive on the right. And yet, Sweden resisted making such a major change. Kicking the can down the road was much more comfortable than correcting this historical oversight, even though almost all cars in Sweden had the steering wheel on the left.
Finally, in the 1960s, somebody in charge decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and hope for the best. Although extensive preparation was needed, the actual shift was implemented by stopping all traffic for 10 minutes in the early morning of Sept. 3, 1967. There had been dire warnings of disastrous consequences, including visions of accident victims stacked alongside the highways because of Sweden's inability to protect against the inevitable onslaught of automobile collisions.
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And yet, somehow, the sun rose, kept its appointment with the Earth and waved goodbye that day without one single automobile accident! In fact, for several years, the number of auto accidents actually dropped, before eventually leveling off at "normal" levels.
Now then, what could Turkey have done to merit even greater applause? You've no doubt heard the expression "Young Turks." They were revolutionaries who, in the very early 20th century, established democracy for the first time in the history of the Ottoman Empire. But their unity dissolved into political infighting, which enabled the "Three Pashas" to assume power and form an alliance with Germany. Nobody now seems to remember or care, but Turkey was on Germany's side in World War I.
After Turkey's loss to the British, French and American allies, another, exceptionally talented "Young Turk" appeared, and became Turkey's great reformer. His real name was Mustafa Kemal, but, just as Josef Dzhugashvili adopted the political name "Stalin" ("Man of Steel"), by which he is now known, Mustafa Kemal adopted the political name "Ataturk," which means "Father of the Turks."
Ataturk denounced the prior "Young Turks" and went on a rampage of reform. He built hundreds of schools all across Turkey and made elementary education mandatory. Women were forbidden to wear the veil. Ataturk hammered Turkey into a modern secular European republic (and that includes giving women the right to vote and all kinds of such modernization).
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And what's so monumental about that? Nothing so far, but here comes the zinger. Ataturk was wise enough to know that he could not achieve his desired reforms unless he completely trashed the Arabic alphabet and the ancient Ottoman alphabet and put in their place the modernized Latin alphabet in which the Turkish language is written today.
There's no way to force you to do this, but I really wish you would take time out now to imagine what life would be like if, all of a sudden, every single word in your life had to be in an alphabet other than the ones you learned as a very young child. Imagine if every single book, beginning with the Bible, the Torah and the Quran, had to be reprinted with Ataturk's new alphabet! Not to mention newspapers, magazines and best-sellers of every kind. And, just as when Sweden made its traffic shift, every road sign in the country had to be changed!
Such leadership! Such vision! Such courage! I don't even want to talk about what's touted as leadership, vision and courage nowadays! Against the shining brilliance of Ataturk, all other "unconventional" leaders come across as unspectacular as, say, the first person to end a conversation by saying – with total soulful intensity – "Have a nice day!" (P.S. I think it was the young lady at the bank!)