This is the third essay in a series critiquing one of society’s most venerated idees fixes – one that not only makes possible the preservation of an explicitly bankrupt notion of leading as a dualistic concept, most obviously exemplified in the polarising nomenclature of leader versus follower but, more seriously, prolongs the praxis of leadership as an entrenched, increasingly hollow and unconvincing, public ritual.
In the first essay, called Leading Nowhere, I noted some of the issues that call into question many of the most common assumptions we have about leaders – suggesting that we replace the winner-as-leader model with a more socially constructed approach to leading. The next piece, Leading Somewhere, probed more deeply into the need for a cognitive restructuring of our core beliefs concerning leaders and leading and the genesis of a new model more suited to the exigencies of today’s world.
In this third piece, using a combination of macro history and recent global events to illustrate how power and truth are being twisted to reify some of the most undesirable traits within the current paradigm, I examine the implications for leadership as a global solution – especially in the context of the failed winner-as-leader model (which I shall refer to as the Hail Caesar syndrome) as it takes a vice-like grip on the mishandling of our socio-political evolution.
Readers may recall that the initial research for the assertions I am making in these essays was undertaken over a ten year period and culminated in the publication of my third book in 2003. The Five Literacies of Global Leadership project was prompted by a puzzling insight: leaders we knew intimately displayed few of the characteristics we expected of them at the time – at least judging from the most frequently used leadership textbooks. Only later did we begin to realise the common mistake of framing leadership praxis within the context of management.
The qualities we observed from those with whom we were working led to a new definition of leadership as a coherent wisdom praxis, based upon the capacity of a group or community to sense, make sense, create, design, depict and express ways to improve one or more aspects of the human condition. The fundamental shift away from an individual leader with a personal vision to a community cooperating to effect deeper social change, was a decisive leap.
In the past leadership was associated with two major theories. Charismatic theory became the genesis of the winner-as-leader model – in that personality was assumed to be a key identifier for any potential leader. Much later, instituted closely on the heels of scientific management, contingency theory assumed leaders possessed different behaviours than their followers. Personality alone became insufficient. Now it was believed the most appropriate person with the right skills existed to be able to fix any situation – if they could be found. Identifying the best person to lead now became paramount. Believe it or not this spawned an entire industry (executive search) – together with a bewildering battery of case studies, psychological tests, and behavioural analyses – all aimed at detecting the right person for the task at hand.
In truth, global leadership as identified during the Five Literacies project has little to do with either theory or their close association with the field of management. It is much more aligned, though not totally, with the theory of social identity. Here a leader’s affiliation with a group were so complete that any distinctive personality traits become ancillary to the group cultural identity. Yasser Arafat is a prime example of an old-style leader who consciously assimilated the essential characteristics of the Palestinian people in order to be better able to identify with them and act as their legitimate voice. He epitomized their struggle in his attire, demeanor, language and intellect. He was also very charismatic – a rare individual. Few global leaders of his era were capable of encompassing all three leadership modes as effectively as he did.
The conclusions we were able to extract from our research came as something of a surprise. But for those who had been involved in the study our findings represented a new leadership wisdom. There was only one difficulty: our inferences were poles apart from more orthodox models of leadership, where the act of leading was generally accepted to be an individual leader’s capacity to motivate (or impose) change in a group of followers.
Unsurprisingly our findings were immediately condemned by those who had most to lose from the heresies we unveiled. Assertions like the following attracted angry responses from business schools:
- Leadership is triggered by a deep inner desire to improve one or more aspects of the human condition. This initial impulse sparks considerations as to why and how things should change. It is these shared musings that cause a distinctive set of decisions and, as a consequence, behaviours, to manifest within a group
- Leading is an invented fiction describing an emergent property within the ecosystem of how humans relate to each other and to their environment. Typically it arises from dynamic changes in external conditions. It is not dependent on any single individual but is a collective social phenomenon.
- Although the stimulus and source material for change can often arise from one or two people, the term leader is an increasingly meaningless term within the contemporary context.
All of this might have remained a theory in search of a pretext. But recent events around the world have caused me to reappraise the need for greater understanding of the literacies model as clues towards a new praxis. The code of history traps us in deep-rooted archetypes. We are devoted to their intrinsic symbolism as well as their quasi-romantic links to the source myth of the hero’s journey. Actually these narratives are so ingrained that we often view them as the only possible option. As a consequence the leader-as-hero model has assumed an almost sacrosanct status. Couple this with the two management models previously mentioned and we have a model that is set in concrete. A charismatic hero, found after an exhaustive search in a limited gene pool, yet able to solve any problems associated with a particularly dire situation. Hail Caesar!
Over the course of these essays I am arguing that we must reject this model and think anew. I believe this old leadership archetype is dysfunctional – utterly ill-suited to comprehending or treating the global problematique – and that as a consequence we must find a new ethos and praxis of leadership more suited to these fraught times.
The higher order purpose for reinventing leadership from first principles is to avoid the trap of putting our faith in any individual, and to generate conditions, not just for survival in the face of a dystopian future, but to benefit the whole human family in ways that many of those ingrained in the old order still find inconceivable – and possibly even undesirable.
Uncovering and expressing this new model of leading is our best hope of dealing with the growing number of crises facing us as a species. Crises created by an inability to contemplate the systemic consequences of our choices, hubris born out of past achievements, and the toxic doctrine of neoliberal economics sustained so tenaciously by incumbent leaders.
Expressing this new model of cooperative leading will require the reinvention of antiquated beliefs and the setting aside of old superstitions. A leap in consciousness in fact. This will be difficult. But not impossible. Indeed we have done it before.
As noted by Yuval Harari in his erudite treatise Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, at some point between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago homo sapiens made an unprecedented leap in their ability to think and express ideas differently. A new form of language allowed them to travel over long distances; invent boats, bows and arrows, needles and oil lamps; create art; and organise themselves in stratified groups, as well as envisaging gods, commerce and other mysteries. This cognitive revolution gave modern humans the ability to gossip, tell stories, play complex games, analyse data, instigate moral codes, plan different futures, and develop new models and philosophies. Above all it enabled large groups of complete strangers to cooperate in adapting to changes in the environment in spite of the fact that our DNA differs only slightly from that of chimpanzees. This leap of consciousness was not deliberate. More a quirk of fate – possibly triggered by accidental genetic mutations in response to circumstantial pressures of some kind. We can only hazard a guess as to the real reason.
There was one very beneficial factor in this early evolutionary shift. But it eventually lured us into a troublesome dilemma. It was the ability to invent in the abstract (to imagine things that did not exist in a concrete form) and to share these ideas with others. We began to talk about these imagined realities as though they existed objectively. On the one hand, while we were able to converse about material objects, such as forests, oceans, caves, soil, and animals, we also developed the facility to conjure fictions – such as nation states, cultures and laws, out of nowhere. These are all imaginary things. They lack both physicality and form until we create simulacra to help give them credence.
This unique capacity for invention perfected our ingenuity to make works of art, build cities, and fabricate tools of every conceivable kind. Indeed everything in our modern world we now take for granted. It also gave us the ability to transmit socially-constructed information, through rumours, lies and gossip, while developing sophisticated relationships with each other based upon trust, values, and common interests.
However in developing this extraordinary capacity we gradually fell into the trap of blurring what was real with what was imaginary. Indeed in some cases the imagined realities – our illusions, fabrications, trickeries and superstitions – became more real than reality itself. Rules, borders, news, money, organisations, morals, contracts, constitutions, religions, and political parties, for example, are all fictions. They are all imagined realities. They do not physically exist. Yet they dominate the many ways we interact, transact and inhabit the planet, insinuating their way into our most fundamental narratives. We even go to war to safeguard these fictions, so central have they become to our every endeavour.
But their expansion, particularly the increasingly blurred lines between fact and fiction, also poses a threat, as we are seeing in the various attempts to deny objective realities from heirs-apparent like Donald Trump, Norbert Hofer, Michele Bachmann, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and Nigel Farage. The viewpoint shared by the followers of these would-be Caesars is one in which any statement has the potential to be the truth. Think about that.
Contemporary society is built on the rational understanding that we can observe things in the physical world, use scientific method to verify them, and form a consensus that certain sets of facts are true – at least until they are disproven with appropriate evidence that was previously unavailable or unseen. This constitutes the objective reality in which we live. Donald Trump, and his campaign team, have set out to undermine all of that in order to claim that the truth is anything they want it to be – as long as a majority of the people who support them believe it. This is an example of an imaginary reality destroying the objective truth. It is an alarming trend in the political sphere and an ingrained element of social media.
It will be obvious from the preceding examples that today’s need for a leap in consciousness is of a different kind entirely. For one thing it is far more urgent. It needs to occur swiftly. And it must have the human family as its overarching focus and framework rather than the global economy.
Our situation is unparalleled in that many of our crises are self-inflicted. Our interactive milieu is far more complex. So too is the human condition. There are many more of us, around 7.2 billion, and increasing at an overall rate of approximately 200,000 people every day. We are using up the planet’s finite resources much faster than before, while facing overwhelming environmental challenges such as global heating, food production, overpopulation, the destruction of other species and acidification of the oceans.
Yet we still spend more of our resources killing each other than we do on sustaining life. Or at least the people we elect to represent us do! Intentionally or not, the current crop of global Caesars, invigorated by military and state hegemonies, are presiding over a growing global cult of division, fear and acrimony – fuelled by anger, racism, the cant of nationalism, and an underlying contempt for the truth. At times it seems as though our political leaders and their acolytes have an insane desire to push us to the edge of extinction in order to prove their own infallibility. How else is it possible to justify the baffling mix of obduracy and lethargy that prolongs the agony of neoliberal economics, futile military clashes, the wilful destruction of the environment, and the pursuit of monetary wealth above all else?
Contemporary political discourse has become an echo chamber reifying the self-righteous ineptitude besieging us on all sides. The more leaders neglect to address the emergencies facing us, the more strident and defensive they become – blaming each other, the media and the public for their own helplessness. But the shriller their tone, the more they feel trapped in systems beyond their control, the more irate citizens become at what we perceive to be sheer incompetence. Social media is no help either. Indeed it almost certainly aggravates the situation. This is inherently unfair of course. Ideologies are so rusted onto the trappings of political leadership that they prevent-by-stealth any capacity to expand the tiny inventory of source ideas available to us. This also explains why common sense is constantly rebranded as innovation in terms of policy. So trusting that anyone, even those in positions of supreme authority, has the ability to bring about the kind of transformative change that benefits everyone equally these days is akin to believing in the tooth fairy.
Of course the tools we have invented are far more ingenious and refined than those available to our ancestors. Digital technologies are sensational while the imminent internet of things, where sensors embedded in everyday objects reduce friction, and enable instant and remote control of ordinary tasks, are about to create a technocrat’s paradise. What we may be able to achieve with artificial intelligence, too, is mind-boggling; but also scary given the potential dangers inherent in autonomous intelligent machines.
But machines are not human. As sentient beings we are much, much more than that, and even the most super intelligent machines cannot take a leap of consciousness on our behalf – or at least not yet. So it is vital we see the need and take our own first steps. Initially this will be to fathom out how we can best coevolve culturally and socially. Throughout history we have done this by crafting new myths to replace the old. The second step will be to persuade our fellow humans of the beneficial character and viability of these new myths. Although this second task might be deemed nigh impossible, likely to take many centuries, there are numerous contemporary examples where new narratives have been adopted almost instantly. It took only days, for example, for the Berlin Wall and with it the entire Soviet edifice, to crumble. In that short period of time the story of communism was all but destroyed and the story of perestroika gained the upper hand instead.
Any impending shift of consciousness must liberate a new kind of thinking and language as before. But this time it must be no accident. One hopes it will usher in a coevolutionary capacity for redesigning our key social constructs – our imaginary realities – in ways that benefit the entire human family, as well as repairing the reckless damage we have wrought on our physical environment.
Personally I would like to see the sanctity of humanity restored. This can best be done by putting nomos (finances, law and order) at the service of logos (our reason for being) rather than the other way around – where we allow the financialisation of every element of our lives to overshadow and subdue our more caring and compassionate presence. In that regard nothing less than a change of heart, one that replaces narratives of oppression and violence with ones of love and empathy, will suffice.
Centre for the Future has a 100 year agenda for transformative societal change. Because our work is focused on reinventing humanity’s shared civilisational worldview we opted to call this agenda a mindful uprising. The marque was chosen cautiously, acknowledging the power of language but in the realisation that we desperately need alternative stories about human destiny to inform a new humanitarian paradigm. We need a change of mind and of heart.
Perhaps this is the new leadership quest. To enact a change in the way we perceive ourselves and work together as sapiens. To pursue a philosophy of nonviolence and inclusiveness. To heal the wounds of a human family so divided that we can walk into the future with hope rather than with dread as our tortuous burden.
Ultimately we must learn to evolve more consciously, with our fellow humans, other species, and the planet, such that we appreciate and are grateful for a wisdom informed by empathy, cooperation, trust, generosity, and love in abundance – in preference to narratives that still promote segregation, sustained oppression, violence, and exceptionalism of one group over others.
As Charles Eisenstein wrote earlier this week in a prescient piece about native American Sioux Indian attempts to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline – a mostly spiritual protest that succeeded against all the odds this week:
Around the globe, powerful interests are destroying ecosystems and landscapes, clearcutting, strip mining, and polluting. In every case, the destroyers have more military, political, and financial power than those who would resist them. If this planet and our civilization is to heal, it cannot be through winning a contest of force. When you have a chance of overcoming an opponent by force, then fighting is a reasonable option. Absent that condition, victory has to come some other way: through the exercise of a kind of power that makes guns, money, and other kinds of coercive force irrelevant. Dare we call this power love?
There are several lessons to be found in Eisenstein’s eloquence. For example, we know that if we go to war, or treat others as the enemy, we play into the narratives that legitimise brutality and that justify military and state police intervention. In fact any dehumanisation of our fellow human beings, something that consistently happens in wartime propaganda, including present-day political racism and misogyny, reduces the sacredness of humanity to the profane.
How then should we proceed? Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance shows that simply by entering a specific energy field we strengthen that field. And so by giving energy to climate change denialists we bolster their cause. By entering into war we intensify the field of conflict. This is why victories won through violence so often lead to more violence. Likewise adopting a good-versus-evil point of view invariably deepens the assumed divide and leads to further unintended consequences.
Mahatma Gandhi, you may recall, met the violence of a presiding elite with non-violence. In reinventing our common worldview we can and should adhere to similar principles. Refusing incentives to engage in conflict by putting energy into peace-creating initiatives – inspiring a more mindful uprising – inevitably extends a counter-invitation to the enemy to cease acting as a foe. To become something else. Something nobler perhaps? This is one of the reasons we need to approach the issue of religious fundamentalism with a greater sense of inclusion.
Current global instabilities – social, political and economic – and the erosion of trust between ordinary citizens and ruling elites, point to divisions between those who advocate for further globalisation, and those like the long-term unemployed, or those who have been denied access to adequate services and who have, as a consequence, missed out on many of the benefits brought by globalised trade. This is resulting in a spate of populist agendas and an upsurge of nationalism, with calls for acts of disobedience, strife and terror. The situation in Britain, the US, Austria and France, for example, where right-wing extremists are building commanding alliances with a populace fed up with the myths of progress, is based upon a nostalgia for a past when immigration policies, employment and the refugee crisis were not the existential issues they are perceived to be today. Once again we need to put energy into transcending latent divisions, rather than voting for one solution over another, which is a habit that merely reifies the existing, insufficient worldview.
Likewise, we cannot continue to dehumanise those who do not share our beliefs regarding the global economy and its more toxic attributes, for that path affronts incumbent leaders who are often doing their best to deal with the pressures of working within an economic system that has turned feral.
We have known for years that continued economic growth is incompatible with ecological sustainability. But instead of screaming our indignation, denigrating others, or violently protesting the evils of capitalism in the forlorn hope that the current batch of Caesars might come to their senses, we should simply put more energy into creating the positive fields, reformed systems, and revitalised ethos we desire and need in order to survive the hubris and blindness that otherwise threatens us all. To build a common destiny of abundance.
 Coincidentally, nomos is the Greek root for the term economy, while logos is the root for the term ecology. Both are imaginary constructs of course. In ancient Greece the rules of nomos were used in service to human logos – or purpose. More recently the rules of market fundamentalism, driven by the competitive neoliberal economic agenda, have effectively inverted the original relationship in ways that exalted wealth and rampant hyperconsumerism to a pre-eminent position in society. Globalisation has spread this untenable economic ethos across the world, and it is now killing us. Meanwhile we have entirely lost sight of any kind of higher moral purpose or compassion.