Why We Need to Reinvent Leadership
The only thing you probably roll your eyes harder than the word “leader” is the word “leadership”. Good.
If you’re under the age of 35, and/or worth less than a billion dollars, when I say the words “leader” and “leadership”, you probably hear the rough equivalent of two things. “Narcissistic douchebags” and “CV-padding BS”.
You probably expect me to go into crotchety grandpa mode right about now, wag my finger, and scold you that you’re totally, tragically wrong.
Let’s think about it together. Today’s leaders have failed in epic and historic terms. At the central challenge of leadership: elevating and expanding human lives. That failure is quantifiable, self-evident, and glaring. I could spout endless numbers at you — but the simple facts are these: economies are stagnating, societies are declining and regressing, nations are fracturing, a generation of young people’s lost, and the planet’s melting down.
And all that has created an Age of Rage. People are angry — and their anger has unleashed a tidal wave of demagogues across the globe. Extremist strongmen, to whom desperate, enraged people are looking to not for freedom, but for protection. Protection from what? Not from problems like inequality and climate change — but fundamentally, from the very people who should be leaders.
Consider the profound absurdity of it with me for moment. The defining feature of an Age of Rage isn’t that people are angry at demagogues, extremists, fanatics….it’s that people are furious at their leaders…and so are seeking shelter from them in the comforting arms of demagogues, extremists, and fanatics. WTF? How did we get here?
Let’s go back to the beginning. (Too) many leaders are narcissistic douchebags. Because much of what we’ve come to call leadership is BS. It’s not the real thing any more than Doritos are food, reality TV is real, or Bono’s Gandhi. Let’s just be honest. What we call “leadership” is in fact more like “How to Get What You Want by Crushing Anyone and Anything that Stands in Your Way”. It’s about power, control, advantage, and dominance. But we’re not apes, ants, or animals. We’re human beings. Such theories don’t really lead us — our great organizations, from nations to corporations — anywhere worth going. They plunge us right down into the abyss.
Such theories of leadership aren’t, though we believe in them…because pop culture lionizes them, cheiftains quote them, and prophets of a new age preach them. Yet what they truly are about, when you think about it, are the dark arts of subjugation, repression, acquisition, and artifice. They do not teach the true arts of leadership: elevation, expansion, inspiration, dedication, and above all, realization — how to realize the human potential of each and every life a leader serves.
We must have more from our models and theories of leadership than conquest, victory, and subjugation. They must offer the world more and better than the dismally broken status quo: great historic problems which are existential threats to human peace and prosperity growing…while the people that should be leading us in the direction of fixing them…party in gleaming mega yachts, sip champagne in post modern palaces, and cut clever backroom deals about how to slice up a troubled world’s shrinking pie over rounds of golf.
For if that is all leadership is, then whenever anyone says the word “leader”, and you hear either “BS”, or “douchebag”….you’re right.
Leadership desperately, urgently needs reimagination and reinvention. Because if it isn’t reinvented, you, me, and everyone with a functioning brain will continue to be rightly eye-rollingly cynical, furiously distrustful, and LOL-inducingly contemptuous of the figureheads we call leaders…but are in fact more like our masters. And thus the demagogues who are now on the rise are likely to simply keep rising…and rising…right into the lofty seats of power. And should that happen, then history will probably repeat itself. An Age of Rage will probably turn into something worse. Let’s try to make it something better. We can aim for a Golden Age…and settle, comfortably, for an age of peace, prosperity, and purpose. But we probably won’t get there unless we try.
“Here are the five principles of being a leader who can — “
Nope — not try…like that. We’re going to have to start over, from the very beginning of why leaders exist at all. Because you’re probably going to say: STOP!! LEADERS?! LOLzerz. I don’t believe in leaders. They’ve all let me down!! Who needs them? I don’t!! In fact, the only thing I detest more than leaders is the word leadership!!
Congratulations and alas. You’re right — but so much so that you end up wrong. Today’s leaders have let you, me, the planet, the future, the world, and history down, in nearly every conceivable way. But that does not mean we do not need leaders. It means that we need better leaders.
Here are three reasons why.
Humans are social beings. They form heirarchies even when they suppose they are eliminating them. The human needs for belonging, meaning, and respect are universal — and these are unlikely to be equally distributed. Nor should they be — for some people will naturally earn more than others. Those people we should rightly call leaders. The natural and primal needs of humans form them ever into bands, tribes, cliques — organizations. And organizations, whether they are societies, corporations, or universities, will ever need leaders. So though this generation of leaders has failed, it is only stark and vivid proof that we do in fact need leaders — those worthy of the term — for the global decline that we are living anxiously through today is a consequence of a lack of leadership.
The second is what I’ll call the Predator Effect. You know the movie Predator, right? You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what the modern day leadership industry wants everyone to be. Because humans are social beings who ever have an appetite for leaders, endless leadership books and gurus oversimplify leadership to the point of nauseating absurdity. They preach that leadership is nastiness, coercion, dominance, and power, inflicting maximum emotional violence just to Get Your Way, and so pop culture has come to think all leadership is is simply something like “How to be a Mean Girl/Alpha Male/Jerky Boss/Rich and Powerful”. But the truth is that that is not what leadership is at all — or perhaps just a very small part of it.
If we were baboons, then sure, leadership might rightly devolve to being at the head of the pack by the shrillest screech and the sharpest claw. But we’re human beings. The leaders that we admire, love, and respect, to which we devote ourselves and our efforts, aren’t often the nasty predatory shark-dinosaur-lizards ones that pop-leadership books and gurus tell us to become. They are the people who shine a light on what it means to be truly, fully alive, and how to be worthier of the brief lives that we are privileged with. They light our way to happiness, meaning, and purpose — not just power and $$$megabucks$$$.
The third is that the people we have come to call leaders aren’t. We’ve overused and abused the term to the point of obliviation, meaninglessness, and so it’s self-destructed. You know how we call Doritos, Twinkies, and everything in the snack aisle food…just like everything in the fruit and vegetable aisle…but you can only actually live on one? That’s pretty much what we do with leaders. We mistakenly call the powerful and privileged of every variety “leaders” — but most of them aren’t leading anyone anywhere.
You may suppose that by “leaders” I simply mean people with grand titles and golden parachutes. I do not. Many, if not most, of them are not leaders in any sense of the word at all. Though pundits and intellectuals may call them leaders, it is better to simply call them chieftains or heads. To hold power over does equal using one’s power well, which is the essence of leadership. Just as someone who inherits great wealth may squander it and end a pauper, so a chieftain may squander his power — and end not a leader, but a villain. Just as we don’t call every vandal an artist, and reserve the title in its truest sense for Picassos and Dalis, so we shouldn’t call every horrible boss, tedious grandee, self-important bureaucrat, head of state, or ruthless CEO a leader — until they have led people to destinations which matter.
Because we have conflated leaders and chieftains, a generation of young people rolls their eyes — understandably — at the very mention of the word leadership. Yet, though it’s understandable, doing so is a grave tragedy for society — and a great mistake for many of them. For they will not have the better leaders that they so desperately need unless societies can cultivate and develop leaders — and those leaders must necessarily be today’s young. They are rightly cynical about leadership — for a generation of leaders unworthy of the word, and better called rent-seekers, has betrayed them. But those who wish to truly change and better the world, to gain a sense of meaning, to live lives resonant with purpose, must learn and master the art of leadership — not merely shrug at it — or else they will probably fail their children just as badly their predecessors have failed today’s.
So here is a plea. I prostrate myself before you and beg you. Do not merely roll your eyes and tune out at the very idea of leaders, the very mention of the word leadership. To hope for a perfect world without leaders is precisely how societies are exploited by the hungriest predators, for it is the defenseless who are left the most vulnerable. Utopia is found only in people’s hearts — not in the world they must live in. We do not often have the leaders we deserve — but we will only ever have the leaders that we become.
Herein, I’m going to offer you a radically different theory of leadership. One designed for a troubled world. It isn’t about becoming a power-hungry egomanical sociopath who wants to Rule the World Even More Ruthlessly Than the Next Guy in Line. It is about doing the things that matter most. Healing people’s broken hearts, speaking to people’s greatest aspirations, elevating people into lives that matter. It’s defining characteristic is lifting people up in a world that seems to drag them down into the muck and mire of stagnation, desperation, and decline. That is what I think true leaders, from JFK to Malala to Gandhi do — and my hope is that you become one.
The world has never wanted leaders less, but needed leaders more. It has never mistrusted leaders more, but wanted direction so badly. It has never been more cynical about leadership, but been more in accord that things shouldn’t continue just as they are.
These great paradoxes point to our inner and outer conflicts about power, privilege, and purpose. So if you ask me, there are three options. One, we continue with the failed leaders that we have, and the world keeps declining right down into oblivion. Two, we pretend that we don’t need leaders, and the world keeps declining right down into oblivion. Or three: we become the leaders that we need — and maybe, just maybe, a tiny glimmering ray of possibility emerges that together, we can fix a broken world.