The Confusion about Leadership
Leadership has become a big buzzword. Pretty much every person’s LinkedIn profile summary talks about leadership and about being a leader in some sense.
Many educational programs have classes on leadership and one of the main traits most programs try to imprint on their students are leadership skills. These institutions would claim many reasons for their focus on leadership, and some of these reasons may hold some truth. There are some altruistic reasons for institutions trying to develop leaders to force positive change.
But there are economic reasons for it as well.
One economic feedback-loop for many educational phenomena is that it makes business sense for an institution. Since people who lead are the ones that impact society, the alumni who impact society will become well known, which will then reflect positively on the institution’s name. So this feedback loop amplifies the phenomenon.
So every institution wants to develop leaders who will impact society in some sense.
But there is one VERY BIG, crucial aspect that many programs, especially MBA programs and many others programs preaching leadership are missing.
- There is very little talk about how to determine the direction to lead
- There is very little talk about who to lead and who not to lead
- There is very little talk about how crowds naturally behave
Therefore people start thinking that leading is a goal on its own.
But leading is not a goal on its own!
Being a leader on its own does not mean anything! Being a leader on its own is actually an alarming development that we should be aware of.
Not every person who leads does it in a right direction.
There were leaders who have created global warming, a planet where every other animal is suppressed by humans, a consumerist society operating in a stressful anxiety mode, social networks that make people insecure about their lives and some other products of arbitrary leadership.
History is full of charismatic but confused leaders, who have led the masses in the wrong direction.
We do not have to go too far back in history just to name a dozen of charismatic leaders, who have led humanity in the completely wrong direction. Hitler, Lenin, Talaat Pasha, just to name a few, were leaders.
In most cases, a leader of an arbitrary group does not have conviction and set values, but appeases the group for financial, sociological or psychological gain. But unfortunately many movements can be bad movements.
As Nietzsche once said: “Insanity is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations and time periods it’s the rule”.
Many movements nowadays should not be led but opposed, because many movements are confused. A simplified general rule of thumb should be, that the larger a group or a movement the more likely it is to be confused.
Of course there are exceptions and movements that were great and had great leaders. Recent examples of these are Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and the groups they led. But these people did not lead the broad masses. They each led small groups of dedicated individuals to create meaningful change. That is how meaningful change has always occurred throughout history.
The key was not that these people were leaders and showed leadership skills. These people had values and had a goal outside of just being leaders. Developing meaningful goals is what we should focus on if we talk about leadership.
Being put in front of the confused group calls for someone who is not just a leader but a non-conformist.
So let’s make this clear one more time - Leadership on its own is not the goal!
The real leaders today are few and can be counted on two hands. Among them one should definitely count Richard Branson and Elon Musk.
If we look at history, the people that have guided the human race forward were not “only leaders”. They were non-conformists first and leaders second, just as the above mentioned King, Mandela and Gandhi. We should teach people to be comfortable to be non-conformists if the crowd is confused. We should let them know that more often than not the crowd can be confused.
If we teach people to only become leaders, it is a recipe for disaster.
Phillip Morris’ CEO Andre Calantzopolus is also a leader and he must have great leadership skills to convince people in his organization to sell more cigarettes. When he got his MBA at INSEAD, a top MBA program in Paris, all he must have learned was that he should get out there and lead someone in some direction. Because that is what he is doing.
Our educational institutions should put less effort on leadership itself and more effort on understanding collective movements and value theory.
We should let people know that being “only a leader” could be in many circumstances the wrong thing to do.
Sometimes it is questionable if the leader is the one that leads the group or if the group is the one that leads the leader.
A philosopher once said, that a brilliant thought leader may prefer obscurity to fame, not to become the follower of one’s followers.
If we analyze most leaders and leadership dynamics in organizations today, we will realize that most of them are appeasers!
Of course appeasing can be sometimes a strategy and part of a longer term goal. Nelson Mandela, in his biography “Long Walk to Freedom”, discusses the importance of a strategy, when trying to reach a goal. But this captures the essence.
Unexamined leadership is not the goal itself!
If we teach people to be “only leaders”, all we will get is arbitrary change, instead of meaningful change.
Sometimes what we need are more people to oppose all the bad movements that no one is talking about today.
We should teach people to critically examine and then follow their values, if we want the right outcomes. We should teach them to think independently and the strength to oppose. We should teach them to value the dissenting voice.
We don’t need more leaders, what we need are more thinkers!
You may say that those who oppose are leaders too. That is true but the difference to most of today’s leaders is that they do not lead anything arbitrary that they get thrown into. They do not just lead any arbitrary direction that will bring them personal success, wealth, power or fame. And they are comfortable to oppose the crowd.
By idealizing “leadership on its own” we are teaching the wrong type of leadership at our educational institutions.
Let’s stop idealizing “leadership on its own” at our institutions! Let’s focus more on understanding crowd dynamics and value theory. Let’s teach people how to develop meaningful goals, meaningful values and the strength to oppose confusion!
Since I am a dyslexic, I am prone to spelling and grammar mistakes. Hopefully it does not distract from the substance of the article.
Thank you for reading this article