Leading Nowhere

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Leadership isn’t what it used to be. I realise this sounds like the opening line from a Monty Python comedy sketch. Only its not funny!

We need look no further than the UK’s Brexit muddle, post-election rifts in the US, Spain’s political deadlock, Thailand’s capitulation to military oppression, the sanctioning of presidential graft in South Africa, Europe’s economic house of cards, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” personality cult, Israel’s persistent bigotry towards its neighbours, and unending nepotism in Saudi Arabia, to conclude that the term political leadership is a non sequitur.

Couple those examples with increasingly unprincipled behaviour in the world of big business, ranging from Monsanto’s deep legacy of corruption and cover ups, Apple’s exploitation of cheap foreign labour, the fossil fuel industry’s condescending marketing spin, and Wall Street’s deceitful bankers, to Nestlé’s proposition that access to fresh water should not be a human right, to realise that the matter of leading and leadership – or the lack of it – have more relevance these days than ever before.

Everywhere we turn the nagging question on people’s lips is Where is the leadership we need? In almost every field of human activity there is a growing, deep-rooted, concern we are being let down by an intense lack of leadership. Elected and appointed “leaders” alike seem to have lost the capacity, the impulse, the moral compass, and the compelling narrative indispensable for steering us securely into a future that is socially desirable, ethically defensible, culturally engaging, ecologically responsible, financially feasible, and systemically convincing.

Instead, an obsession with trivia, the acquisition of fame or fortune, and the pursuit of gratuitous follies, have become uppermost in the lives of many incumbent “leaders”. Those that are not tempted by the trappings of wealth, power and influence appear to be terrified, traumatised by events that appear to be spiralling out of their control. They do not know what to do or where to turn for help. Meanwhile almost every attempt at systemic intervention by the global cadre of current “leaders” seem to nudge us closer to the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile fundamental questions we should be inviting go uncanvassed. Questions like: What kind of cultures, societies and political structures do we need in order to guarantee the viability of our species? What is needed, that we currently do not have or cannot see, to avoid a breakdown in the civilisational paradigm? How should we be tackling our most life-critical problems – poverty, food security, disease, pollution, terrorism, the threat of runaway artificially intelligent machines, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example – differently? How might we shape the unfolding of religious faiths in terms of what role they might play in the future? What steps are needed to be sure that intelligent machines remain our servants rather than our masters? And so on….

Surely these are the kinds of questions “leaders” need to ponder in order to be able to propose strategies and policies that are wise and that avoid unduly negative consequences. But no. Far too many of them are busy patching up the present to pay much attention to profound topics and ideas such as these.

If these questions are so important, yet are only being considered by a handful of academics and philosophers, not by “leaders” per se, then what exactly do we mean when we talk of leading and leadership? What are we searching for, expecting, or assuming, that is either absent or unaccounted for? Is leadership just an advanced form of management after all? Or does it arise from a fundamentally different impulse?

In the days before 1945, when much of the world was engulfed in war, life was simpler. Everyone knew their station and it was clear what was required of a “leader”. It was just as obvious who the “leaders” were. A “leader” was a figure of considerable authority in the community – easily distinguished by the manner in which he or she conducted themselves. This was in the days when even deportment and attire attested to one’s status and authority. “Leaders” had a vision – though not necessarily the truth – and crowds of followers were either inspired by, or conscripted to do, their bidding. They strode among us as giants, supremely confident, self-righteous, larger than life. Often charismatic and physically imposing, the supreme validation of their entitlement to lead others was an unshakable faith in their own virtuous talent. Born “leaders” demanded respect, even when commanding the impossible, or crafting conditions that would later become intolerable. Their morality went unquestioned. They were the elite of the social order after all – the cream of the crop. Their slightest whims were obeyed without question. People followed them even unto death. They were our “leaders”.

Or were they? “Leaders” I mean. Were we foolish to expect heroic deeds and astonishing solutions, tinged with humility and compassion, from ordinary folk we happened to put on a pedestal? Perhaps their ascension was a mistake – a quirk of fate based upon a false proposition – together with a self-deprecating belief that others were best equipped to take the lead. That somehow we were not up to the task and did not possess the skills.

Or was it the simple fact they knew how to win? Is it conceivable that we promoted people to lead not because of any innate capacity, but because they were adept at winning? Have we been delusional about leading and leadership by allowing a miscarriage of meaning to endure for so long? And have “leaders” deceived themselves and their followers into believing they have unique leadership attributes? If so, we have nobody but ourselves to blame and it is a problem.

In any social paradigm where scarcity becomes the context for highly competitive behaviour it would hardly come as a surprise to find winners the most lauded individuals in that society. After all, in a world where the dominant narrative is resolutely dualistic, the only alternative to winning is losing. And nobody likes a loser! But that is precisely what we have contrived. The business schools know this is a bandwagon that pays well. So do the academics who continue to confuse management with leadership in numerous papers and management textbooks that reify this and other errors. So do numerous senior executives, bureaucrats and elected officials whose status and remuneration depends on them being cast as “leaders”.

Current leadership models are flawed for many reasons. But, as substantiated when researching and writing The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, expecting that any single individual, whatever their proficiency, experience or charm, can alone assume the role of leading in today’s complex environment, is erroneous. Henceforward leading and leadership, if they are to remain valid terms, must be considered collective verbs. The term “leader” has become a meaningless title and should be expunged from the lexicon.

In today’s globalised world leadership, as the ego-empowered practise of a single individual, requiring a number of followers to carry out that individual’s bidding, is obsolete – although in truth we do not yet fully comprehend or appreciate the consequences and in many respects continue to act as though it is still appropriate. Nor is it likely that we will change that view while outmoded models and practices are prolonged by venerable institutions.

In the place of individual “leaders” trapped in the present, we need communities of cooperative learning where those who are naturally inclined to spark ideas and tell compelling stories, include more salient features in their awareness and understanding, design systems that work for everyone, and focus attention and effort on enabling future possibilities, are the catalysts for change. Their task is as simple as it is humanitarian: to help evolve conditions in which beneficial change can occur. In other words the experience of leading, of exercising leadership, is that in which, by emboldening emergent qualities around constructive cooperation and empathy, one or more virtuous aspects of the human condition can be improved, while more malignant aspects are eliminated.

There can be no doubt that in the past we surrounded ourselves with people who knew how to win, were masters at convincing us of that, and were supremely skilled at climbing the ladder of material success, then using those exterior trappings as evidence of their proficiency as “leaders”. They were adept at staying in the limelight by winning elections, deals, titles, bonuses, lotteries, bailouts, profits – and our attention. Even today we tend to put these winners on pedestals, anoint them as our saviours, and effect disillusionment, frustration and anger when they fail to perform as we had hoped. We are expecting the impossible.

For mere winners are not what we need. It is easy enough to game broken systems. But ultimately that is just an empty charade. Real life is not a game. Nor can we claim there has been a great dereliction of duty – a failure of leadership – as many try to claim, or even that leadership is becoming a lost art.

It’s not that we need a new generation of old-fashioned “leaders” either. As previously stated, the global problematique and dynamic is far too complex, the options too many and varied, for any one individual to grasp. The orthodox paradigm, too, accentuating competition within scarcity, is depleted. And although our toolbox is empty, most new tools are as yet beyond the capacity of many to master and deploy.

What we do need is a totally fresh model and praxis of leadership – a distributed ecology of mind focused on new destinations, together with a revitalised sense of purpose giving emphasis to empathy, cooperation, truth, dignity, humility and wisdom. We also need to bring divorce proceedings between would-be “leaders” and professional managers to the fore. The marriage was always founded upon a false thesis. But today the relationship has broken down irretrievably and the two parties need to be allowed to go their separate ways. The court of popular opinion has no other choice than to concur.

We need all of this right now. Without it we will still be tempted to allow individuals like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom feign leadership, to take us on a path to anywhere – be it fear, leading to moral collapse and a further fracturing of society, or comforting, cheap, indulgences that lull us into a stupor of indifference.

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