Today I’d like to demolish the myth of leadership which is plaguing our society. This misbegotten notion of leadership might be the single biggest impediment to human progress.
We have allowed ourselves to become paralyzed by the “Hero Myth” and by the unspoken social contract between so-called “leaders” and the rest of us, the worshipful and obedient “followers”.
The Hero Myth
There is an ancient myth that goes back as far as recorded history. Every culture has the story of the hero, who somehow has an epiphany or is otherwise “touched by God”, and goes on to confer upon society the magnificent benefits of that epiphany.
Here in the U.S. where Christian mythology is common, the archetype of that hero is called “Moses”. In modern parlance, we call these heroes “leaders”. There are great leaders and lesser leaders, spiritual leaders, thought leaders, business leaders and entertainment leaders. We have lots of “leaders”.
The Social Contract Between Leader and Follower
Most people don’t like to think, they don’t like to get too far outside the comfortable lap of conformity, and they are just barely keeping things together, and so can’t afford to do too much that’s “impractical”.
So they hire a “leader”. The leader’s job is to do all the uncomfortable things the followers don’t like to do, and in exchange, the followers worship the leader. The benefits that followers confer upon leaders include things like fame, money, sex, status, and power. All the things that humans crave.
But there’s a “gotcha”. When leaders, who are human, invariably fail, the worship rapidly converts to outrage, triggering the “fall from grace” and the attendant consequences of ostracism or even death. Followers have standards, after all.
So, the deal is “you be and do everything I’m incapable of being and doing, and I’ll worship you. Screw up, and you’re dead”.
In recent times, the contract has been modified to include the “sacrifice” clause. If a leader instructs the followers to do something that involves self-sacrifice on the part of the followers, that immediately triggers the leader’s fall from grace.
Consequences of the Leadership Myth
Consider the consequence of the leader-follower contract. Here’s a short list:
Followers become helpless. They’ve delegated their thinking and emotional fortitude to someone else. Everyone knows that if you don’t exercise, your muscles become weak. So, we followers have become weak.
Leaders lose respect for the followers. These “leaders” aren’t stupid. They understand the contract, the weaknesses of the followers, and they like the benefits of leadership. Soon they learn to lie to their followers, and steal from them “for their own good”. They avoid tough problems that require sacrifice.
A Different Contract
To get rid of the “leadership” blight, it’s time to introduce a new definition of leader. Here it is:
A leader is someone that figures out what needs to get done, and does it.
Consequences of the New Leadership Definition
This new leadership definition has costs and benefits, just like the old definition does. Let’s take a look at what those costs and benefits are.
Reading and Thinking. In order to “figure out what needs to be done”, one must observe (read, ask questions, etc.) and think about what was observed. This takes time and effort, and it is surely a “cost”.
Less Shearing. Once a person gets that vaunted ‘situational awareness’ – that happy place where you know what’s going on, and where your interests lie, you tend to get shorn less often, and that can be a good thing.
Fewer Meetings. If everyone already knows what to do, and knows how to do it, then we don’t have sit through all those “meetings”.
No Managers. No meetings implies “no managers”. Managers think their job is to tell others what to do. Here’s a better job for managers: equip “workers” with the knowledge and resources they need to do their job, and then go to lunch.
Leadership in the Workplace
The best manager I ever worked for met with me once a week. Here was the conversation:
Manager: You have a copy of our department’s quarterly plan in your hand. What do you plan to do this week in order to advance our goals?
Tom: [Since I had the plan, and I knew my job and was a skilled worker] “This is the list of activities and associated deliverables I will be working on this week.”
Manager: Do you need any resources you don’t already have? (that implies, time, materials, machinery, knowledge, etc)
Tom: “yes, and here’s what I need” or “no, right now I’m good, thanks”
Manager: “I’ll see that you get what you need” or “Here’s how you can do your job without additional resources”. And then Manager says: “See you next week. Let me know if anything comes up in the interim”
New Leadership Concept Works Better
In the example above, you can see that the manager was, according to the new definition, “leading” very well. And you can also see that me, the putative “follower” was also “leading” quite well.
There wasn’t any politics. No fawning, no arrogance. Both of us understood our job well, we’d equipped ourselves to execute at a high level of professionalism.
The new “leadership” style is very effective, it’s efficient, and it squashes a lot of the soul-deadening politics out of work life.
That new definition of leadership also works especially well in political settings. Try it sometime and see for yourself.