Why Everything You Know About Leadership is Wrong

Most of what we think is leadership isn’t. Here’s why.

Here’s a tiny question. What is leadership? And why, though we seem to train and indoctrinate people in it, and when that doesn’t work, beat people over the head with it, don’t we seem to be able produce many leaders worth following? Here’s my tiny theory: because much, maybe most, of what we suppose, assume, and believe is leadership isn’t.

A morally conflicted world is in desperate need of moral leadership. A way of life that offers us convenience — but is costing us the planet. Technology that delights us — but takes our jobs. Economies that reward us — but frustrate us with stagnation. Tribes we compete to belong to — which cost us ourselves. Social contracts which are broken — but no one quite knows how to rewrite. Such are the fraught moral dilemmas of the age. And in such a world, lower levels, less powerful, sophisticated forms, of leadership, simply don’t cut it. They’re not enough to inspire, arouse, or awaken people, let alone anchor organizations, movements, or revolutions. But here’s the catch — it’s those largely lower forms of leadership which we’re taught, rewarded for, and familiar with.

To explain, I’m going to discuss what real leadership is, using the example of VW, who’s recently horrified the world, and the Pope, who’s electrified it.

Wait! You cry, a good internet leftist, atheist, some-kind-of-ist. The Pope?! Not that guy. He’s the head of an institution I totally can’t deal with. He’s a priest, dude!! Here’s my response. Grow up, dumbo. If you can’t learn from people you disagree with, you’re not just dumb — you’re going to stay dumb. In other words, you’re foolish. So grow up and get over the current cultural fixation with rage-mobbing and thought policing people, instead of expanding your mind and exploring human possibility. You will always be a follower, and never a leader, if you limit your self to your beliefs — instead of your potential.

And all that brings me to the idea of what leadership actually is. To explain it, let’s start with the current state of leadership.

The world is crying out for (real) leadership. Whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or Corbyn a curious phenomenon is sweeping the globe. People are rejecting the heads of traditional institutions, like Hillary, Jeb, or David Cameron, in favor of populist leaders. Populist is used by pundits as an insult — but they sling it at their own peril. For the truth is that people don’t connect with orthodox institutions anymore because they shouldn’t. They haven’t trusted them for quite a while — and now, it appears, they don’t really want them.

And that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. While your average billionaire will relentlessly argue that The! World!! Is!! Getting!! Better!!, the obvious and undeniable state of reality, to anyone with an internet connection and a human soul, is brain-meltingly different. The world is beset with truly great problems: climate change, inequality, debt, fracturing nations, and stagnation, to name just a few. And these problems are so different from yesterday’s that we haven’t really updated leadership itself to be able to even fully grapple with them. At their best, they are vastly more complex , unpredictable, insoluble with yesterday’s linear, mechanistic approaches—we can’t just throw armies, bombs, aid, or speeches at them. And at their worst, they are orders of magnitude more problematic than yesterday’s problems: they are existential threats to humanity itself. And the inconvenient truth is that orthodox institutions, and their leaders, are doing something like fiddling and eating grapes while wildfires surround the shining city on a hill.

It’s so obvious — but so overlooked, let me say it again. The world is crying out for real leadership. Why? Because at precisely the moment it is confronted with problems of a scale humanity’s never seen before, our leaders have rarely been more incremental, timid, cautious, safe, predictable…or, perhaps, corrupt, duplicitous, and dishonest. Read that sentence again — because it’s the world in a nutshell today. And in such a world, power is likely to continue to flow to those who can offer not merely uneasy compromises with a burdensome past — but a promise. Not even, so dire is the state of a leadership, of a better tomorrow. But at least that there will be one.

The highest leadership is about “why”, not just “how” or “what”. So what is real leadership? Is it merely making new products, services…launching a startup…rising through the ranks…attaining a title? Nope. Let’s differentiate between levels of leadership. At the lowest is what you might call technical leadership. Setting standards, innovating, that kind of thing. Think of it as the “how”. Then there’s organizational leadership. Managing people to make things, setting objectives, defining payoffs. Think of it was the “what”. And then there is moral leadership. Moral leadership answers “why”. It is concerned with the truly Big Questions. Why are we here? What’s the point? And so it provides the Big Answers: purpose, meaning, a sense of significance. And it is only in those Big Answers that we find a way home: to ourselves. The people who we were meant to be.

But wait!! You cry. What about…Trump? After all, he’s got morals, too. Perhaps he does. But that’s not moral leadership. The leadership part isn’t just about having any of set of dubious personal morals — but defining a moral compass that everyone can follow; by which people can attain and exceed to their truest potential. That is the test of moral leadership. And it is precisely that test that most of our so-called leaders fail.

But it is precisely the test that the Pope passes, when he connects voracious capitalism to climate change, that the earth is our natural home, to which we are all entitled, and that freedom — not just to buy stuff, but to live life fully— is every person’s birthright. See the difference? Moral leadership isn’t just about “having morals”. It’s about offering people a moral compass by which they can find the true north of a life well lived, in the dark night of every being’s struggle to flourish. Everyone “has” morals, even serial killers. But real leadership is the art of giving a moral direction to people, who, lost, alone, afraid in the dark, must still find their way home to the light — or ever feel incomplete.

The truest leaders help people find a way home. Let me explain just how different the idea of moral leadership is from how leadership is usually conceived of.

We’re conditioned and brainwashed, from the very day we’re born, to believe that leadership is optimizing. That is, counting beans. Plus, minus. Yes, no. Does it add up? The most accurate cost/benefit analysis reveals the “right” decision. The “leader” is the person who can undertake this analysis the most accurately of all. Right? Wrong. Cost/benefit analyses have a great failure: they apply to the average, the quantifiable, and the observable. And so they are poor guides to the subjective, lived experience of human potential. You probably don’t want to choose your partner, lover, friends, dreams — or even your career, goals, or ambitions — solely based on a cost/benefit analysis. Unless, that is, you want to spend most of your life miserable, angry, and lonely. And so leadership — real leadership — is more than frowning and counting beans the more accurately than the next guy. It’s questioning why we’re counting the beans, what the beans mean, where they came from, and where they’re taking us, in the first place. Of this much, be sure: wherever you see an optimizer, you don’t see a real leader. The true test of a moral leader is to guide people to what is right — and what is right is greater, truer, and more enduring than what is merely profitable, valuable, or alluring. It is what is worthy, beneficial, transformative — what leads them home to the shores of life, not merely crashes them on the rocks of futility.

If you don’t believe that, consider VW. It’s internal cost/benefit analysis probably said something like: we can save billions by cheating emissions tests…and the probability of ever being found out is infinimtesimally low. Therefore, the expected benefit outweighs the cost. History, of course, reveals a very different truth. VW was a technical leader — and even an organizational leader, one of the largest and most innovative corporations in the world. But it is in a state of ruin now precisely because it failed the test of moral leadership. Instead of being a moral leader, it turned out to be a moral reprobate. The lesson is this: in a world that is crying out for moral leadership, those who fail at it will be punished more and more severely.

It’s true. Those who are most adept at counting beans rise through the ranks and are elevated to leadership positons. But are they leaders — in the true sense of the word? Leadership’s simplicity is it’s great challenge. Elevating people to their full potential, though it may sound simple, is one the most demanding tasks in life. Not merely because it asks us to sacrifice, or forego. But because it demands that we rebel, defy, imagine, create, suffer, love. It challenges us to stand against fate, destiny, and kings, so life may come to its fruition. And it is in that fruition that we find the answer that we have been, all along, searching for. A sense that our lives have meant something greater than us.

Remember when I said moral leadership provides the Big Answers? That is why it is today’s great challenge; why the world is crying out for it. If you’re merely working harder to get poorer by buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like to live a life you don’t really want…the truth is that too often life seems like it doesn’t have a point. When we fail as moral leaders, we are leading people not to their true selves, which resound with possibility and grace. But to futility, despair, emptiness, pointlessness. But the converse is also true. Should we rise to the challenge of moral leadership, in a world parched for it, then we are what we have been searching for all along. Ourselves. And that is the truest miracle of all.

It is we ourselves who find our way home when we rise to the obligation of leadership. For the truth is that each and every one of us was put here to be a leader, in our own lives, in ways tiny and small. So all who walk beside us may, too, blaze their own trails. Being leaders, not merely following leaders, is our truest challenge. Not merely because the world, today, at this very moment, is in turmoil. But because the human heart is ever lost and suffering, born in confusion, parched with craving. And so it mustn’t merely wither in despair and meaninglessness, but come to ache with gratitude and peace, for the mighty privilege of life, if it is to brim over, at last, with the boundless waters of meaning.

September 2015