Down With Leadership
The Republican primaries grind on. Now that Newt Gingrich has declared his determination to fight it out until the convention in August, the year’s news “agenda” will be wholly dominated by the soap-opera arguments of the presidential contest. Though tediously drawn-out, the ritualized debates reveal little of how the successful candidate will really perform once in office. But one message comes through, unintentionally, loud and clear. Our political culture, and indeed society, is obsessed with the idea of “leadership.” This obsession is not only demeaning (both to the candidates, and to us); it is profoundly dangerous.
Our culture fetishizes leadership. A thousand books extol the “leadership lessons” of tycoons and sportsmen. The leaders are wise; the rest are rendered impotent sheep. As the deification of the leader and his superhuman qualities reaches its orgiastic climax in the presidential election, it seems almost blasphemous to point out an awkward new reality. The king is shedding his clothes. Leadership, at least of the traditional political kind, is not working.
The nature of the world today is dramatically altered from the circumstance of only a few years ago. Globalization is spawning an immense and growing complexity, requiring new forms of management. It is simply impossible for any single authority to understand or arbitrate this maelstrom. Yet this omniscience is what we demand of our leaders.
Any event, from recession or war to the creation of a single job, is now the function of countless myriad and ever-changing factors. This always was the case, but now it is more so. Nevertheless, like children looking up at teacher, our infantile political culture requires the would-be leader to claim that they alone can make wise decisions to govern this extraordinary complexity. The gameshow format of the campaign debates (which tells its own story) only highlights the absurdity: “In 30 seconds, please tell us how you would save the economy?”
The evidence of the disastrous ineffectiveness of top-down “leader-led” management of the world is all around, should we care to see it. In the environment, climate change accelerates. In the economy, volatility mounts untrammeled by the confused and belated efforts of governments, forever behind the curve. In society, inequality and social tension are in parallel ascent.
Traditionally, and with easy resentment, we blame politicians and political parties for these failures. But the uncomfortable truth is they are not the problem. The problem is in fact us, for in our pathetic obeisance to the leadership cult we have abdicated not only our own responsibility, but, worse, our much greater power to deal with today’s new world.
In a complex system, the most potent agent of change is not authority but the individual, and the group. The era of a world organized and dominated by states and their leaders is ending. No one will take their place in the director’s chair. No single agency or leader will determine any particular event, or necessarily understand it. An era of leaderless change is upon us, where history will be written by the many, not the few.
This shift is buttressed by recent research in network theory: Complex systems resist centralized command-and-control, but individuals can trigger change across the system. Other research highlights another under-rated vector of change — those with most influence upon the behavior of others are not government, not experts, but those right beside us: neighbors, family and peers.
Conventional assumptions about political power are thus overturned. It is action by individuals, and with others, which offers the most effect. As we realize the decline of the leader-based model, a new form of self-organized politics will emerge.
Rather than looking to distant authority for answers, individuals and groups will pursue change directly through their own behavior, for the means, as Gandhi taught, are the ends. To arbitrate our common business, people are starting to negotiate directly and horizontally. In cities around the world, participatory democracy, where all can take part in decision-making, is producing fairer, less corrupt and more sustainable outcomes. Decisions made through mass participation reflect the interests of everyone and not just those with privileged connection to the leadership.
Watching the trading of hollow slogans in the debates, we intuitively know that the leader-centric model is not working. Taking responsibility instead ourselves will demand more work. But action by us is not only more effective, it is also more fulfilling than the cynicism and frustration evoked by today’s leader-obsessed political culture.
Worshipping leaders is more than usually dangerous in today’s new complex circumstance, but this cult has long denied our own remarkable power.