The Leadership Fetish

-Jules Goddard

The notion of leadership has a habit of bringing out the worst in people, whether they cast themselves as leaders or followers

“Sad the nation that has no heroes; 

Sadder still the nation that has need of heroes.”

(Bertolt Brecht, Galileo)

We need heroes more than ever, because our own lives are so un-heroic.  We need leaders who embody all the virtues that as citizens and employees we lost long ago.

We live in an age of helplessness, indecisiveness, dependence and sentimentality.  More than half of British adults perceive of themselves as victims.  We are the dying embers of a romantic age.  We therefore want leaders to be confident, decisive, right first time, out-front, brave, authentic and unblemished.  As a result, we are almost certainly expecting too much from them – and when this is not forthcoming we feel let down and place the blame squarely on those who failed to live up to the standard we feel we have a right to expect from those we choose to follow.

We want leaders to release us from the responsibility, indeed the obligation, of living our own lives according to the light of our own reason and volition.  In this sense, we are expecting the wrong things from our masters.  What we should be expecting, if we had any dignity at all, is for them to release us from such infantile wants and needs.  A nobler requirement of our leaders would be to liberate us from any need to be led.

Because more and more of us are harbouring these unreasonable (and neurotic) expectations, we should not be surprised that fewer and fewer people are willing (or able) to take on these duties and to play this role.  The pool of available talent is evaporating fast.  Our model of leadership is not sustainable.

The failure of leaders – and our concomitant loss of trust in politicians, business executives and professionals – is our own fault for placing them in a double bind: if they succeed on our terms, they simply reinforce our self-demeaning sense of victimhood and followership (thereby forfeiting our respect for them); if they fail, they are not worthy of our respect.

It would seem that we only accept leaders:

  • Who never sought to become leaders but accept the role as a duty
  • Who are simultaneously super-human and “one of us”
  • Who know the answer but are “listening” and “responding” to our concerns
  • Who get things right first time but never betray a hint of vanity or smugness
  • Who are simultaneously autocrats and democrats
  • Who serve us without being servile
  • Who are authentic and transparent – as well as having nothing to hide (they have lived full-blooded but blameless lives)

Whatever it is that qualifies someone to be a leader in the modern world also disables them from acting as leaders.  If we’re dissatisfied with the leaders we have, perhaps there’s something wrong with the conditions we’re creating.  Perhaps we’re not creating the right moments, or the right opportunities, or the right challenges for the leaders we want and need.

Might one set of appropriate conditions be the modern workplace?  The family, the neighbourhood, the church and the community are no longer providing us with the sense of identity, sense of purpose, and sense of belonging that we need if we are to be fulfilled, cooperative and productive human beings.  In their stead, the workplace is having to fulfil these roles, over and above that of providing us with our livelihood.  Business leaders are implicitly being required to play the combined roles of father, priest, teacher, tribal elder, saint, orator, captain of games, role model, confessor …

If the 20th century had just one lesson to teach us all, it is the perils of placing our trust in “visionary leaders” and ideologues.  Isaiah Berlin, reflecting on the events of the century and being reminded by a colleague that eggs have to be broken to make omelettes, responded by saying, “Some omelette!  Some eggs!”

The last century was marked by followership – zealots, Bolsheviks, fellow travellers, useful idiots, National Socialists, Leninists, Maoists, Nazis, Islamists – all dressing up in various kinds of uniforms, flying various kinds of flags, and parroting various kinds of cod philosophy. Will the 21st century be any different?  Or will we continue to produce what Bernard Levin used to call “single issue fanatics”, most of them driven by a personal grievance or by a sense of collective humiliation.

The question posed by the leadership theorist Rob Goffee, “Why should anyone be led by you?” betrays the very disease for which it purports to be the cure.

A better question would be: “Why should anyone feel any need to be led by anyone at all?”  Many of us, including professors of organizational behaviour and writers about leadership, have fled the hierarchical organization out of distaste for being led, managed, cajoled, appraised, incentivised, coached, given feedback, and so on.  As Charles Handy predicted many years ago, the problem is not unemployment, so much as employment.

The art of leadership, like the skill of management, is to do without it.  We live in an over-managed society, fearful of having to manage our own lives.  We may believe we have the answers to everyone else’s problems; but with respect to our own issues and challenges, we feel bereft of answers.  Accordingly, we outsource responsibility for our lives to others in the fond belief that they will manage us better than we can manage ourselves.  We deceive ourselves into believing that they have our interests and welfare closer to heart than we do ourselves.  We want to be looked after – and so we place our faith in those who have arrogated to themselves a “duty of care” towards others such as us.  We call them “leaders”, and place our faith in their ability to understand our interests better than we do ourselves.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life” (Steve Jobs)

In a wealthy society replete with opportunity, perhaps there is no sadder sight than a well-educated 50-year-old still in employment, still reporting to a boss, still working a 5-day week, still fearful of stepping out of line, and still dependent on the beneficence of others.  Is there anything more dispiriting than the thought of working for someone with a “vision”, especially if this vision is embedded in a “values statement”, as though a job were a jihad?

Employment is fine at a young age – so long as its purpose is to educate its subjects to grow out of the need for it.  In today’s economy, its main purpose should be to serve as a training ground in self-reliance, self-responsibility, and self-employment.  By the age of 40, no employee should have any more need of employment.  Rather in the way that parents bring up their children to grow out of childhood and to become adults, so employment should develop employees to rid themselves of a life of subservience and dependency and to exercise their sense of agency.

Collectivism is the name we give to the ideology that is more fearful of freedom than servitude, more comfortable with solidarity than diversity, more censorious of curiosity than compliance, and more driven by fear than courage.  Only because we have become acculturated to living in a managerial society are we so accepting of busybodies, regulators and thought police.

The acquis communitaire, the law-book of the European Community, now runs to 170,000 pages of statutes.  What happened to European civilisation to render us so ineffectual, so meek, and so fatalistic in the face of such bureaucratic meddling and autocratic over-reach?  Perhaps a life of subservience at work has created a society that has lost the pride and self-belief required to confront such regulatory paranoia.

When socialism died in the Soviet Union, one would have thought, or hoped, that the values that had sustained it for 70 years – the extinction of individualism, the subservience to a self-elected elite, the plethora of petty-fogging rules – would have perished with it.  But 30 years later, we find these same values being adopted by large organisations, both private and public.

The moral would seem to be this: that if an organisation needs strong leadership or a hierarchy of managers for it to succeed then it is a poor organisation.  The art of organisational design becomes one of dispensing with the need for leaders or managers.  Without these encumbrances, people can throw off the shackles of followership, obedience, and fatalism.

Someone who wants to be led, or needs to be led, or feels lost without leadership is a menace to the organisation – and disqualifies themselves from becoming an effective colleague or co-worker.  Conversely, someone who wants to exert authority over others or act as a leader of others disqualifies themselves as an effective corporate citizen.  If you seek power or enjoy the exercise of power you are generally unfit to be trusted with power.

This is the paradox at the heart of leadership: those who desire it can’t use it and those who could use it well, have no interest in exercising it.  Therefore, perhaps, we should leave the concept well alone – and allow it to perish with those 20th century leaders whose crimes and misdemeanours should serve as a monument to a deeply flawed idea.

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Jules Goddard is a fellow at the London Business School and former Gresham Professor of Commerce.

This article was featured in Matter Thoughts Issue 1 – Horizons

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