Edward Snowden: Hero? Traitor? Leader?

Is Edward Snowden a hero? Plenty of people seem to think so, from Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, to the many people on Twitter who have described him that way.

Or is he a traitor? While they may not use that word, some are calling Snowden a "defector" who "should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law" or calling his leaks "incredibly damaging to national security." Others question whether his actions are "dangerously irresponsible."

While the world debates what to call what he's done, I've got another question: Is Edward Snowden a leader? In The Guardian's profile of the 29-year-old source of the NSA surveillance leaks, Snowden appears to think he is. He told the news organization that he did not expose what he knew before now, in part, out of hope that things would change with Barack Obama's presidency. The lesson he says he took from this experience is "you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act."

(Snowden told The Guardian he does not, by the way, consider himself a hero, saying "what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.")

To be sure, what Snowden has done is certainly bold and to many people, brave. And it's not surprising that he's disappointed with leaders in Washington. On the one hand, he is right: Leadership involves taking risks and bravely standing by one's principles. It involves putting the needs of the greater good (how that's defined will be debated in Snowden's case) ahead of personal goals.

But leadership also typically involves followers. Even if they are not official leaders of an organization, a group or a country, leaders typically provoke others, too, to take some kind of action, whether the world sees that action as something good or something bad. Perhaps the greatest test of how history will define Snowden will be whether he prompts more people to also come forward with information, or inspires people who have the authority to do so to enact change.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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