In the West and much of the world, the two Russian words that most people associate with the reign of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev are perestroika and glasnost. Much less known is novoe muishlenie, a phrase meaning “new thinking” that he used quite frequently and was a favorite of his. Perestroika means restructuring, while glasnost translates to openness or transparency.

I arrived in the Soviet Union from Ghana in the summer of 1985 to begin my university studies. It was great timing. Gorbachev assumed the presidency in March that year, which meant that I was there to witness the very beginnings of his reform program.

A command-and-control system of governance had been in place in the Soviet Union for over six decades, and ordinary citizens were by then fully accustomed to waiting for orders from Moscow and regional Communist Party offices. That made the society quite lethargic. President Gorbachev knew that for his reform agenda to have any chance of success, he first needed to inject some dynamism into the culture. A complete overhaul of the national mindset was required to get citizens to think independently and engage in grassroots activism.

Using his bully pulpit, he started making nightly televised speeches in which he communicated his thoughts directly to the Soviet people. They were similar to FDR’s fireside chats, the nightly addresses he gave on radio to the American people between 1933 and 1944 about the Great Depression, World War II, and other subjects. Whereas FDR is said to have made about 30 speeches over that period, President Gorbachev spoke nearly every night on television during his six years in office. Some were direct addresses, while others were speeches he made at various venues that were then broadcast later in the evening.

President Gorbachev’s speeches were like sermons. They often lasted one to two hours, and in addition to politics, they touched on a variety of subjects including sociology, economics, and philosophy. Even though they weren’t directed at me, I found them extremely interesting to listen to. It was also a great way for me to enhance my Russian because he was a great communicator.

Taken together, those sermons were about how to be a good, active citizen. Unfortunately for President Gorbachev, he was preaching mostly to people for whom his messages seemed to have come too late. Such civics lessons are most effective when taught at a young age. Six years into his presidency, and after all those speeches, it was clear that the demeanor of the Soviet population hadn’t changed all that much.

What President Gorbachev encountered instead was fierce resistance from hardliners in the Communist Party who had no appetite for his reforms. The status quo served their interests quite well and they went all out to protect their turf. I got my first hunch that something was amiss when I didn’t see the president on television for several days in the summer of 1991. That was quite unusual. I had little prior knowledge of those behind-the-scenes bitter battles he fought with the hardcore communist enthusiasts, and was thus shocked when news broke that there had been an attempted coup to remove him from power. Although the putsch failed, it triggered the series of events that culminated in his resignation later that year and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

President Gorbachev’s reform effort did not succeed, but I had a great deal of respect for him in the way he exercised his leadership. He thought deeply about the course his nation needed to follow, and spent enormous amounts of time and energy trying to persuade his compatriots about the wisdom of charting that path. He did what true statesmen are supposed to do.

When I look around the world today, I see two broad categories of politicians. They are either followers or dictators. In democracies, leaders are supposed to carry out the will of the people. But most current elected officials in the democratic world take that too literally. They rely heavily on focus groups to determine where the political winds are blowing and blindly follow them. That is not leadership. Such robotic interpretation of the role of a leader would mean that we could simply pluck anyone off the street and put them in the high chair. There would be no need to spend enormous sums of money and effort on elections.

The opinion of a population’s majority is not always right. However, in every society, there are politicians who use majoritarianism to further their interests. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act is a case in point. Proposed by then Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the highly controversial bill was aimed at using the idea of “popular sovereignty” to expand slavery into American territories where it had previously been banned. Demonstrating both bad and cowardly leadership, President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law. His failure to properly deal with the violence that ensued prompted the Democrats to deny him the party’s nomination in 1856, making him a one-term president.

Many historians view the law’s passage as one of the catalysts for the American Civil War. When clearly necessary, true leaders must summon the courage to defy the will of the majority in order to protect the interests and welfare of the minority. President Abraham Lincoln, who presided over the Civil War, showed that kind of leadership. He paid the ultimate price for it.

Dictators, on the other hand, have always had life easy because they don’t even need to bother checking for wind direction. They simply hand down the rules and everyone must follow. In such autocratic societies, people generally know that expressing any opinion that is anti-establishment can have deadly consequences so oftentimes there is complete social silence.

The world is spinning out of control today. Visionary and bold leaders, in the mold of President Mikhail Gorbachev, are urgently needed to use their persuasive powers to pull us away from the brink. Unfortunately, what we have instead are mostly panderers and tyrants.