When We Think We Lead We Are Most Led

I’ve been trying to think through why I’m bothered by the idea of cultivating “leadership” among our students as a possible area of intensified institutional focus.

Partly I think this is a theme that virtually all highly selective colleges and universities already pay a lot of attention to, an old, established trope of appeals to teenage strivers and achievers. It’s pretty hard to do something distinctive in such well-trodden ground.

Unless it’s to rethink whether to walk there in the first place. In general terms, I’ve come to the same conclusion about leadership that I’ve held for a while about the desire to change the world for the better. Any community or organization needs good leadership, just as they have a need for people who set out to improve the way things work, but setting out with the primary objective of being a leader or changing the world is a good way to accomplish the opposite of either of those goals. Effective leadership arises out of circumstance and experience, when it is needed. The people who start off with the driving desire to be leaders are the problem, not the solution. I don’t want to tell any of my students that they’re already leaders, or that they’re being trained for it.

That sense of entitlement to leadership and its prerogatives is crippling the political classes worldwide. In the name of leadership, technocrats live apart from their citizenry, experts decline to sully their knowledgeable conversations by engagement with the insufficiently educated, activists burn bright with the Promethean fire they bear into what they imagine to be the darkness of apathetic communities. Leaders do to others and are not done unto. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is such a leader (though notably, one who rose above the initial judgment of the French educational system that he was not fit to join the political class). The “Wutbürgers” of Germany are pushing back on “leadership”. The citizens of Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Portugal and Spain are all fuming about how “leaders” take care of themselves while inflicting austerity on others, much as the “leaders” of the American financial system have decided that risk is for the ruled, not the rulers.

It’s one reason educated progressives in the U.S. have trouble gaining political ground. They may criticize what some politicians do, but they themselves are too much part of the culture of leadership, too close to the political class, to articulate that criticism in a convincing way. We’ve trained them that way, sent them on their way with a heavy dose of noblesse oblige, eager to speak for other people and anticipate their futures.

I think I’d rather start with humility, decency and authenticity before I work on leadership. It doesn’t matter what our students end up doing, all three of those will serve them well. Let leadership come to those it will when it ought. I’m more content setting out to be a part of training ordinary people to do their share of some bigger work, with teaching loners and wanderers who will keep their distance from anything that needs to be led, to suggesting the value of introspection and exploration for all sorts of work and all sorts of lives.

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11 Responses to When We Think We Lead We Are Most Led

  1. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Nicely argued. Instead of authenticity, how about humanism?

    Authenticity raises my hackles. Marketing speak trades heavily in authenticity. Heidegger and the Nazis wanted authenticity too. But they had no use for humanism.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Fair enough. Under other circumstances it raises my hackles too. Honesty is maybe a better word for what I’ve got in mind, but I don’t really mean telling the truth, exactly. A regard for truth, even when it’s difficult or distressing? Is there a good word for that?

  3. Joey Headset says:

    I agree, the whole concept of teaching leadership is hollow. Take, for example, these ubiquitous “Leadership Conferences” aimed at high school and college students. Generally speaking, the people who attend these are high strung jerks who like tell other people what to do, but are so lacking in social skills/charisma that most people wouldn’t “follow” them out of a burning building. And why is so much value placed on leadership, while none is placed on it’s corollary: followership? Knowing when to shut up and do as you’ve been told is incredibly underrated as a life skill.

  4. akotsko says:

    Even during the short time I spent at a liberal arts college similar to Swarthmore, I got tired of hearing about leadership all the time. Once in class, I was lecturing over some historical topic and mentioning that I thought a particular king had used a self-defeating strategy, then said, “Remember not to do this if you ever become dictator of a country. [students laugh] It could happen! After all, K College produces leaders!”

  5. Laura says:

    An interesting thing that I learned from playing WoW was that I didn’t like being a leader. Even in a game, I felt too much pressure to “win”, to tell people the right things to do, to make no mistakes. I can look back on times when I have been what may be called a leader, but it was when I was just doing my thing and other people happened to participate along with me. I suspect leadership may come to me again the same way. I find myself stepping back from roles that look like leadership roles. I prefer being a mentor. I think I can have more of an impact planting seeds in my students than in going out and establishing some kind of program that seeks to do the same thing on a broader scale (which many in my field think we should be doing, and there’s money to do it).

    Of course, the students I work with are younger versions of yours, and we have somewhat the same problem. They need more humility than help with leadership. By the very nature of their positions in society, they will be “leaders.” We’d be better off with people in those positions truly understanding the dynamics of how they got there.

  6. Part of the problem is that when we focus on the qualities that the undergraduate experience might help develop, we do this largely for marketing purposes. So we choose the qualities that look best in the brochure, and leadership is always going to be the big ticket item here. My hunch is that we’re always half talking to our sponsors here, whether private or public. Look! We’re developing the next generation of leaders! Drum rolls a-plenty.

    You’re right: to avoid becoming simply compliant with this institutional ballyhoo, we need to be really candid with the students who do walk through the door about what’s wrong with most models of leadership, including the vision we just sold them—and try to work alongside them to develop more progressive, collaborative ideas and at the very least more realistic expectations.

  7. SamChevre says:

    Leadership is a vague term, and I will enthusiastically agree that people shouldn’t be encouraged to define themselves as leaders.

    On the other hand, some level of leadership is something many/most people end up needing to know how to do, and somehting I know I would have benefitted from learning more explicitly. Think of it as a toolbox, not a role definition: “things we’d like our graduates to know for when they need them.”

    Just an off-the-top-of-my-head list:
    Meeting structures-strong and weak points. (Speed/everyone is heard/options are thoroughly considered).
    Processes for decision-making and their strong and weak points. (Consensus, various voting structures, various participation-based structures).
    How to write a formal memo summarizing a decision and the reasons for it.
    Organizing and planning events.

    I’m a technical worker with no management responsibility, but all these are skills that I occasionally need, and also they help me understand what managers are trying to accomplish.

  8. Doug says:

    Nice redesign!

    (And as long as I’m off-topic, I’ll note that whenever I log in, the blog tries to take me to an https version of the URL, which is then 404. Not that it’s a big deal to go back to your regular URL, but thought someone among the leading thought leaders at Easily Distracted might be interested.)

  9. Rana says:

    I think some of the problem with emphasizing “leadership” is that the term itself is so vague and open to interpretation. Some think of it as basically being a dictator or a micro-manager, who tells everyone exactly what and how to do. Some think of it as offering an example, of just doing things so well that others will want to emulate you. Some see it as being a mentor or a guide, helping others realize their potential – a mode of leadership that requires humility and getting out of the way. Some insist that it involves leading “from the front” while others argue back that it’s about staying back and seeing the big picture. And then there’s the disagreement over whether leadership is something you seize, something that’s thrust upon you, or something that arises out of collaboration and shared expectations.

    Given that some of these definitions are directly at odds with each other, teaching “leadership” without pausing to define what that means first is a guarantee of frustration.

  10. Eric Behrens says:

    Uh oh. I will tread out onto thin ice by mentioning that I am nearing the completion of a masters degree in organizational leadership. I agree with the sentiments that “leadership” as it is often used by Admissions departments (now shifting to “enrollment management” departments) as a marketing term. But honestly, isn’t that what the liberal arts have been offering all along: the notion that those who think deeply and are broadly informed make better leaders?

    But let me speak up for the concept of leadership as an instrument of applied ethics. It is something that can be studied and learned, discussed and written about. There is a large body of leadership literature that forms a subfield of social psychology and anthropology. Maybe, Tim, you feel uncomfortable with the notion that you are expected to deliver lessons on the subject of leadership. I think it’s crazy to insist that history courses be designed to cultivate some vague notion of leadership. But that doesn’t mean that leadership couldn’t be studied in a liberal arts curriculum.

    Think of it this way: we have reason to believe that because of their considerable talents, good luck, and structural advantages, a good many Swarthmore students WILL end up in leadership positions. But are we as a society better off if they’ve actually had a chance to reflect in a systematic way about that means, and how it is done well? What’s your governing organizational theory? How do you address ethical problems that arise in groups? How do you balance the psychological and social needs of the self with the needs of others? How can you improve organizational effectiveness? How can you improve social cohesiveness? Diagnose organizational problems? Effect positive cultural change? How do you truly promote inclusion and diversity?

    I would also add that the definition of leadership that I infer from your post has more to do with those who obtain and exert authority, rather than those who provide true leadership. More with those who presume to know, rather than those who seek to know and then help others make changes. The conflation of leadership with power is something that’s all too common, and centuries old. But there are other kinds of leaders that have nothing to do with being autocrats, bureaucrats, technocrats, or aristocrats. (Damn ‘Crats! Ruin it for everybody else.)

    A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving of one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant led. –Robert Greenleaf

  11. hestal says:

    The terminology you have chosen is inadequate, just as is our usual political terminology. Your initial complaints about those leaders who look after themselves, rather than those whom they are supposed to lead, was so close.

    So many of our terms are inadequate. Conservative, liberal, progressive, Republican, Democrat, independent, etc. all are inadequate. People who may fairly be described as conservative sometimes embrace liberal policies, liberals sometimes embrace conservative programs. Madison knew about this problem of terminology. He did not say that his proposed new government was intended to protect the People against conservatives or liberals. Instead he went to the trouble to define his terms. He was precise, he did not want his readers to misunderstand. In Federalist 10 he said that the purpose of our government was to protect the People against faction. He defined faction this way:

    (Madison)By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

    (Hestal)Madison wanted to protect us against those who worked against the common good. Washington, in his Farewell Address agreed. He said:

    (Washington)They [factions] are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people.

    (Hestal)Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 1, told his readers why he, Madison, and John Jay were writing the Federalist essays. He, and they, wanted to protected the People against faction:

    (Hamilton)Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

    (Hestal)So, we need to apply an adjective (or is it an adverb? I forget, it has been more than fifty years since I cared.) to each of our usual terms. I suggest we use the following adjectives: “tyranno” for those who espouse policies that work against the common good, and “democrato” for those who work for the common good. Thus you could speak of a tyranno-liberal, or a democrato-liberal, or a tyranno-conservative, or a democrato-conservative, or a tyranno-Republican, or a democrato-Republican, or a tyranno-Democrat, or a democrato-Democrat, or a tyranno-government or a democrato-government. How I do go on.

    (Hestal)But Madison was unable to give us a way to battle faction. In Federalist 10 he gave us the “scheme of representation.” He said this about his scheme:

    (Madison)The effect of [delegating power to a small number of representatives] is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

    (Hestal) This is a highly contingent proposition. It depends on getting just the right people—wise, discerning, patriotic and just—who will do the right thing. But the realist in Madison made him say in the very next sentence:

    (Madison)On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.

    (Hestal)So the nature of our government depends on the nature of the men who control it. This is starkly clear, but Madison’s statement is virtually unknown. I will wager that almost no Americans are now, or ever have been, acquainted with this important warning—I will double the bet by saying that no American at all can recall any national politician ever making reference to this essential point in any campaign speech. Madison’s system did not provide protection against factions gaining power—he said so himself. If we elect men who are wise, who can together seek and find the true best interests of the nation, who are patriotic and just, and who will rise above temptation, we will have a government that works for the People. But, by itself, the “scheme of representation” does nothing to put such good men into office.

    (Hestal)As it turns out, in spite of the best efforts of the Framers, we were left with a system that offered power and money and therefore would attract tyranni. And tyranni have come, and we, the People (democrati and tyranni alike), have suffered, are suffering, and shall suffer, because of it.

    (Hestal)As it turns out, our representatives are more cunning than wise, are false patriots who wrap themselves in the flag, are in pursuit of self-interest rather than the public interest, are unjust rather than just, and are partisan rather than nonpartisan.

    (Hestal)As it turns out, tyranni have slowly, inexorably, figured out how to overcome, to virtually erase, the safeguards that the Framers designed, thus enabling the pace of corruption to quicken. The feeding frenzy taking place in Washington by our representatives and the two political parties that support them is a terrible sight to behold.

    (Hestal)As it turns out, and just as he feared, Madison’s scheme of representation has been perverted into a scheme of corruption.

    (Hestal)As it turns out, our current implementation of representative democracy, the Framers’ cure for the mischiefs of faction, is nothing more than a hope that was dashed, a wish unfulfilled, a prayer unanswered.

    (Hestal)By using these simple terms, tyranno and democrato, we do away with all other labels and we can talk about policies not personalities. Our discourse improves. Furthermore, our education system, at all levels, by adopting these two simple terms, changes for the better. We teach our children, not to lead, but to work for the common good. We teach them to be democrati.

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