The Biggest Mistake in Leadership (You’re Probably Going to Make)
Power corrupts. But so does purpose. Here’s how.
The biggest mistake a leader can make today is putting fear before love. And plenty of you, despite your insistent objections, are going to make it.
Go ahead and pre-emptively projectile vomit into the face of the nearest billionaire appitalist, because I’m about to say something awful. The great challenge for leaders today is changing the world for the better. I know. Like you, I too think that the cliche “changing the world” is gut-boilingly nauseating.
Never before in the history of modernity has the need to change the world been so head-spinningly great, jaw-clenchingly urgent, or brain-meltingly obvious. Today, the leadership stakes aren’t merely “or else we’ll have a bad quarter, dudes!! high-five me, brometheus!!111111” — they’re “or else the planet, prosperity, democracy, the young, and life as we know it might not make it”. And precisely because the stakes are so high, the greatest little challenge for those who wish to be leaders today is not turning into something like the mental, social, and emotional equivalent of angry 22 year old loser hermit social media addicts wannabe pick up artists holed up in the junkfood-wrapper landfills they call “bedrooms” , whose hurt has calcified into rage—the greatest little challenge in leadership today is not turning into bullying tyrannical egomanical puritanical a-holes on our noble quest to change the world.
The simple truth is this. As the scale and scope of the world’s problems expands from local to global and from mere nuisances to existential threats — as we enter what I call an age of discontent — then the nature of leadership, too, must change. More than ever, leaders are going to have to change the world. Truly change it — for the better. But. As the pressure on leaders to change the world increases, amplifies, so they will face a great tension. They will have to stop themselves from bullying, harassing, tormenting, taunting people into getting it, seeing it, doing it. Because not only will that always backfire — it cannot get us to confront said problems in the first place.
Those who truly wish to be leaders in an age of discontent — not merely its demagogues, bullies, hecklers, and tyrants — will have to turn reject and refuse ruling through fear, and towards leading with love. What does it mean to “lead with love”? Sorry: it’s not a wishy-washy ideal — it’s hard-as-nails-reality, and it’s tougher than you think.
Power corrupts. But so does purpose. Power tempts us with indulgence, but purpose tempts us with absolution. Power tempts us to indulgence ourselves — and purpose tempts us to save everyone else, and thus prove our own worth. That is, purpose tempts us to shame, rage, guilt, and taunt people into being saved, so that we may feel “we” have saved “them”. And yet it is at the very instant we make that mistake that our higher purpose is truly forsaken.
What does that mean?
If your higher purpose to change the world turns you into a bully, heckler, harasser, tyrant — precisely the kind of person that ruins the world — you’ve already failed. Think about it with me for a moment. When the Bernie Bros or Trump Trolls or techno-utopians or whomever start bullying, demeaning, mocking, taunting, and harassing people that disagree with them, what are they really doing? They are behavingly precisely, in fact indistinguishably, like those they oppose — extremist bullies on the other side. So what aren’t they doing? Leading. They aren’t inspiring, encouraging, bridge-building, coalition-forming. In fact, they are doing the opposite of leading. They’re simply turning people off, making them roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, purse their lips, mutter “eff this”, and click “block”. Turning them off from what? Not just from Bernie (Trump, whomever). But from the very challenges they wish people to overcome.
There’s a lot in that last paragraph. I want you to consider it carefully, not just so you see that it is true, but so that you understand why. So let me take a moment to explain it.
Machiavelli rightly observed that a prince must learn to rule through love and fear. And so today we often think that leadership is much the same. Hoping to rule through fear, we attempt to bully, mock, harass those who dare to disagree with us. Social media makes it easier than ever. We can descend on those who dare to dissent like packs of rabid vultures, picking at their bones.
But leaders aren’t princes. When we obey a Machiavellian model of leadership, we’re also following advice that’s not just centuries old, outdated, obsolete — but that doesn’t apply to us at all. We aren’t princes: we don’t have hereditary titles, gigantic estates, aristocracies built merely to serve and defend us, whom we must rule over. If we did, fear might — just might — be a useful tool in our leadership arsenal.
The truth of leadership in an age of discontent is very different. If we wish to lead, then it is love that we must earn, not fear. There are two key words in that last sentence. The first is love. Should we merely attempt to rule through fear, we may be successful at scaring people. So what? That will never make us leaders. Why not? Because we cannot scare people into solving tomorrow’s great challenges — from climate change to inequality to debt to immobility to crap jobs to pointless work to fracturing societies to a failing planet.
To take truly great problems on, we must inspire, elevate, encourage people — in short, all the things that are precisely the opposite of scaring them. Fear can only ever turn people inwards. It may paralyze, or enrage, or anger. But it cannot instill in us the burning desire to take on great challenges, do amazing and wondrous things. Fear makes us defensive — and offensive in our defensiveness. But only love, and the faith, gratitude, forgiveness, defiance, rebellion, imagination, possibility that it bestows upon us, ignites within us, makes us constructive. Only through love are we willing to engage in the most senselessly sensible act in all creation: to sacrifice some part of our selves to imagine, build, create, what is greater — so we may gain a sense that our lives which are greater than our selves, have mattered.
Leaders are people who change the world. Like you, I loathe that turn of phrase. Yet, we need it more than ever now, in the fractious decline and retreat of modernity. And because there is more pressure now to change the world in modernity’s decline and retreat, the littlest biggest challenge for leaders is this: to be more careful than ever not to become the opposite of leaders: bullies, tyrants, demagogues hecklers. The fearful bully is never the defiant rebel. The tyrant is never the pioneer. And the heckler isn’t the person in the arena.
Thus, leaders in an age of discontent will have to resist the growing temptation to lead through fear — which will be ever stronger, more alluring, more seductive, for the simple reason that the growing intensity of today’s challenges will make leaders themselves angry, afraid, outraged, anxious, worried. It’s natural, if we wish to be leaders, to think something like, “Dammit!! why can’t you see what I see! There isn’t time for this!!”. But the simple fact is we will only ever turn people off — not just from us, but also from the very challenges we wish them to overcome, should we attempt to rule them through fear.
Leading through love means overcoming the ever-present temptation to abuse and belittle people, to guilt and shame them, to mock and taunt them — to force them into line. But understanding the limits of their cognition, assumptions, history, lives, selves. And accepting them, with gentle grace and compassion, anyways.
It means not just shouting at them, heckling them, ganging up on them to “agree!! or else!!”. It means creating the conditions for them to grow into following the principles that you espouse. It means not just arguing tendentiously with nor patronizingly explaining to people things that they are not ready to, equipped to, nor prepared to understand, but putting faith in people — even those who damn you — first, always, everywhere.
All that is the challenge of true leadership in an age of discontent. So let me say it again.
If your higher purpose to change the world turns you into precisely the kind of person that’s ruining the world, you’ve already failed at it.
Leadership is love standing against fear. It is the great lesson of a life well lived. That life, though inevitably defeated by time, is greater than death, futility, meaninglessness — for when any life kneels before love, all life’s possibility expands. That is the greatest miracle in all creation. And so. The challenge for leaders isn’t merely loving the people that love them — the truly great challenge is loving people, in the largest sense of the word, that don’t.