It is time to come clean about what we believe leadership to be - a term that we use so casually and apply to almost everyone in a position of authority. In spite of the many millions of dollars spent on the development of ‘leaders’ annually, the strategies we adopt have failed to deliver the kind of results (i.e. ‘leadership’} we expect and so urgently need. What does leadership actually mean? Why do so few people in public life inspire us with their morality, their courage, or their vision of how things could improve? Is leadership a rare gift after all – impossible to learn and consequently out of reach to the rest of us?
Or is it a flickering ember resting deep within the soul of every man, woman and child, waiting for oxygen to ignite it? Perhaps we are simply looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Is extrinsic leadership the solution to the crises we face? Or is leadership as an intrinsic impulse the key? Is there a thread linking Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Yara Shahidi, Malala Yousafzai, and Isra Hirsi - apart from the coincidence they are all young women?
Part of the difficulty lies in our stories about leaders and leadership. These narratives trap us in past reveries - romantic nostalgia from a Boy’s Own world, they tell almost exclusively of daring heroics and the superhuman prowess of a select band of men. You won’t find too many female tales in this stereotypical male domain. Nor do more spiritual and softer aspects of our humanity get in the way of a good yarn. This is a world in which physical strength, endurance, and courage are prized, where bold actions speak louder than words, and the expression of feelings, other than passionate convictions bolstered by assertiveness, is considered weak, fragile and overly sensitive.
And so we are taught from an early age that true leaders possess the kinds of bravery, wealth, power and status that mere mortals can only dream about. This cultural archetype generates an expectation that we are all merely players in a story being directed by the innately powerful. We even fall for the notion that the world must be designed and managed by men if it is going to work efficiently. All of which is arid nonsense of course.
Another myth concerns the relationship between leadership and management. As management science sought legitimacy during the latter half of the 20th century, the new consulting industry extended its influence and earnings potential by declaring leadership a management competency. This is absurd. The inherent difference between managers (who channel any resources at hand in their efforts to achieve measurable, predetermined results) and leaders (who harness imagination and energy in the pursuit of inspired dreams) will forever remain in creative tension. Confusing the two, however, degrades management while thwarting true leadership, which is much more of a collaborative phenomenon.
A third alternative is that the nature of leadership itself is changing. Perhaps the charismatic style of celebrity leadership we have come to expect - and for which we still yearn if opinion polls are anything to go by - is no longer relevant or sufficient for our needs. In that instance, perhaps leadership is morphing into something less evident, yet more pervasive, than before. That does not necessarily mean leadership has disappeared. Rather, it is adopting a new guise. After all, the world is constantly changing. Old certitudes are continually swept away. So why not leadership?
Astonishing breakthroughs in knowledge are undermining almost everything we once held dear. New technologies are disrupting long-established patterns of human activity, banishing the familiar and eroding certainty in our minds. Traditional value systems - centered on family, friends and faith - are mutating. Our most venerable institutions are threatened as, through the rapid fusion of ideas, technologies, markets and cultures, entire belief systems collide and ricochet - indifferent to established boundaries and social norms.
At the same time, new communications gadgets plug us into the diverse clamour of the global village. What it means to be human (its ideals and its anguish, its joys and its horrors) confronts us constantly. It is in our faces, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The intrusion of the mass media and propaganda into our most life-shaping patterns ensures there can be no escape. Trapped in prisons of our own invention, yet able to interact instantly with people in different lands, and from utterly dissimilar cultures, we happily impose our opinions on anyone silly enough to listen, wherever they happen to be. In this technospheric realm of selfies and avatars, the need to be heard and to be liked matters much more than anything else, or so it seems.
Certainly the pressures on business and government officials appear overwhelming, giving them no place to hide. Technology has changed what we do, how we do it, and even how long we can go on doing it before we must do something else. Today governments react nervously to fluctuating conditions. Clinging to the coat-tails of either American or Chinese militancy, their own authority evaporating with the steady decline of national sovereignty.
Companies stick to business models that are becoming rapidly obsolete because that is all they know - apparently unconcerned or oblivious to the risks they face in remaining the same. Spin-doctors talk up growth and profitability, glossing over the look-alike plans they know will stifle innovation and strip value out of the enterprise. The landscape has become littered with mindless trivia, and short-term survival tactics. And, just to add a further frisson of insecurity, a rising tide of scandals is shaking world markets as cryptocurrencies refuse to die, state-backed terrorism kills far more people than Islamic fanaticism, the Catholic Church staggers from one crisis to another, hackers use the Internet to manipulate elections, and the crossing of critical planetary boundaries threatens our very existence! No wonder our so-called ‘leaders’ are in such a state of indecision. They are totally out of their depth. Still we demand more from them.
As these dynamics acquire a seemingly unstoppable intensity they are giving rise to instability and an environment where the rules - and much of the knowledge - of the past 400 years has become irrelevant. How can we possibly know what matters any more? What must a ‘leader’ do in times such as these? So ambiguous and volatile is today’s environment it seems almost impossible to do anything much. Chaos and anxiety have usurped certainty.
Yet seemingly almost anything is possible. Gene editing promises to eliminate disease. In less than a decade machine intelligence will match that of humans. Google's self-driving cars have already driven over a quarter of a million miles without human intervention in actual cities and towns. Vertical farms produce greater yields of food by using far less space and water. We can print buildings and human organs, and are edging closer towards non-invasive, Cloud-based computation and communication devices in our brains. Robots write and perform music that is almost indistinguishable from that composed by the great masters. Space is in the news again as SpaceX launches thousands of mass-produced miniature communications satellites into low Earth orbit and Virgin Galactic aims to provide suborbital spaceflights for space tourists. Why we can even create new generation mRNA vaccines in months, rather than the years needed to invent and trial conventional serums. The world is rapidly changing.
In the final analysis though, changing the world is not about deploying new gadgets. It is not even about having a vision, instituting controls for its realization, and then trying to persuade others of its virtue. That process is precisely how we got ourselves into this predicament in the first place.
On the contrary, transformation of our world at a deeper level requires that we first transform ourselves. Herein lies the real challenge of leadership: letting go of our old self-serving scripts and creating new stories that allow a regenerative spirit to emerge whole once again. If it so happens that we are currently governed by the least among us, intellectually and emotionally, we cannot expect that transformation to come from incumbent ‘leaders’. They are simply incapable of transforming themselves given that their public persona is fixed. Transformation must inevitably start somewhere else.
The story that has dominated Western civilization for well over three centuries has been one of servitude, conformity, and efficiency. It invigorated an age of progress in which consumerism flourished and self-interest was confined to the notion of material gain. This story is no longer sufficient to generate a sense of meaning and well-being for most people. It has led inexorably to an impoverished view of the self, and an ethos of dependency within society. Furthermore, because it fails to remind us of our dependence on the environment in which we live - so often seen merely as a store of resources we can use for production - we have willfully damaged Earth's assets, losing any sense of affiliation with the planet that sustains us. That script is now used up.
The new story, gradually emerging - instinctively felt but not yet clearly understood - is about communality, inclusion, and empathy. At some point, we have to know, accept, and express gratitude for who we really are, rather than being content with what others want us to be, or demand that we should be.
In this evolving story we must each accept responsibility for our own actions and the world in which we live. As long as we can tap into the realms of our imagination, liberate our ingenuity, engage authentically with others, foster greater integration in our everyday lives, and discover more sustaining and meaningful stories, we are capable of transforming who we are and what we do. And when we change ourselves we change the world.
I have no doubt that new forms of leadership are needed in order to interrupt the continuous cycle of desire and consumption, along with envy and avarice, that drive our more acquisitive impulses. That leadership meme will emerge from alternative ontological perspectives regarding what actually matters, who we are, and who we are becoming as a species, as well as more complete expressions of the world we share with all other life forms and the realities we must face.
An appreciative society, and an empathic civilization within an ontology of ‘interbeing’ is waiting to be born out of the ashes of industrial economism. Once that meme is accepted, transformational energy will radiate from within the collective soul of the pioneers whose new story will change the course of history.