In my youth, I spent some time in and around a kind of fundamentalism that placed a special emphasis on the concept of “authority”. I never have been really good at caring about what people use that word to mean. For one thing, when I say “authority”, I’m referring to something corresponding to reality. If it’s demonstrably true and stands up against attempts to disprove it, then – always tentatively speaking – it has authority. What the people I knew meant by “authority” was doing what you’re told, because you’re told, and because of who is telling you.
Another term they favored was “leadership”. Most of us have encountered that word in a couple of contexts – functional and dysfunctional ones. Dysfunctional leadership isn’t just someone who isn’t particularly good at it – it’s a skewed conception of what leadership means in the first place. “Being in charge” is what a lot of dysfunctional leadership amounts to. Mere fiat. In other words, leadership gets confused with authority, and authority rests on authority (for its own sake). “Being an example” is a phrase often used to talk about leadership, but who hasn’t witnessed someone attempting to “be an example” simply by “being in charge”?
I have – I saw it all the time, but not just in some religious groups – I also saw it at work, too. It’s what happens when “authority” and “leadership” rest on something nebulous and in the realm of “power”, “divine calling”, or “because enough of us say so”. If that weren’t prevalent in corporate life, how could we explain talentless, visionless, uncreative leadership? It’s not much of a stretch to compare the following two conversations:
Conversation 1: “Why are we doing it this way?” This is the way Eric wants it done. “But why are we doing this at all?” Because Eric told us to. You were at the meeting, don’t you remember? “But this doesn’t seem rational.” All I know is this is where the ball is bouncing right now, and I don’t make waves. They want me to jump up and down for 8hrs a day, I’ll do that. When they see it doesn’t work, they’ll just tell us to do something else, anyway. “Maybe we should go back and present our concerns. After all, if we go the wrong way as a team, it affects all of us. The fact that we were told to do it, won’t save the project, protect our jobs, or keep the company from wasting or losing a ton of money.” You heard me express my concerns at the meeting. I said ‘so we’re going to do it this way?’ You want to go back and rock the boat with Eric now, and I think you’ll get slapped down, but go ahead. Just don’t tell him I had anything to do with it.
Conversation 2: “This doesn’t seem very consistent. Haven’t you thought about the possible contradiction here?” Are you saying Eric is wrong? “I don’t know. Couldn’t he be wrong? I mean, what if he is?” I don’t think you should presume to think you know better than Eric. Besides, even if Eric were wrong, he’s been put in a position of leadership over us, and it’s important to submit to that leadership. It’s not our job to decide if he’s right or wrong. “But doesn’t this involve our brains? I mean that’s it? We’re going to just do whatever someone says, even if it might be entirely wrong, because he’s a leader?” I think that’s what leadership means. Don’t you?
These conversations are composites of a number I’ve had and heard over the years. I find the two talks strikingly similar. In fact, I think it suggests that leadership in the way most people conceive of it – whether it’s political and national leadership, religious and spiritual leadership, or corporate and vocational leadership – isn’t leadership at all. It’s fuhrership – a kind of fundamentalism regarding authority and absolutism regarding leadership. It’s more a system of control than a source of anything truly uplifting. Sure, sure, everyone rolls their eyes when someone is compared to the Nazis, even if some things compare quite well – the Reichstag fire and WMDs, for example.
But in this case, we’re comparing a cultural tendency in 1930s Germany with one that seems fairly prevalent in a lot of places. That is, the tendency to absolutize leadership – and to greet it, after that, with a certain nihilism. In other words, a tendency to treat leadership as if there’s no answer to where it comes from, what it is, and how it operates, let alone any ability to compare it with alternative conceptions of leadership. In a lot of places, leadership is an unaccountable absolute – an assertion with neither meaning nor definition – an effect without a cause. And, while perhaps effective in doses, it achieves, in the long haul, exactly what you’d expect from an effect without a cause – very little of what is conceivably possible.
As I said, I think of authority as that which corresponds with reality, not that which is bestowed on someone from above, whether the stockholders are in the market or in the sky. In the same way, I think of leadership as something demonstrated by achieving a great thing and then helping and encouraging others to achieve it. First, a great thing: I don’t think it’s great to have exceeded your sales quota or revenue goals every year for the past 5 years running. That’s awfully convenient. It’s certainly useful. But it’s not really greatness is it? When we refer to greatness, we’re talking about something a bit more inspiring – something universal, almost transcendent. Second, helping others achieve it: I don’t think this means writing down your 10 step sales process and insisting everyone repeat it, nor again participating in a coaching/mentoring program that your leadership thought was a good idea. Again, it might be really useful and convenient, but we’re talking about real help here, and help achieving great things, not merely convenient things – help in transforming a life, not a few afternoons.
As examples of leadership, I might refer to Dan Pink, Seth Godin, or David Ramsey. These are leaders.
These speak with authority. But not the authority of fame, or notoriety, or of having written a book, or because they’ve made a lot of money, or because they are on TV and you are not. Not yet. All those things are true, but they’re also true of that past president you don’t like, that actor or actress or singer/musician or fashion celebrity you think is a twit, and that comedian you don’t think is funny. The authority with which the leaders I’ve mentioned do speak is far more believable and tangible – the authority they possess and share (real authority isn’t just possessed, it’s also always shared, in that reality is something potentially shared) – their authority is in having capsulized reality in a highly communicable, contagious, repeatable, demonstrable way, and then bending over backwards to convey their excitement to people hungry to find excitement in just about anything related to work. In other words, they summarized something universal, and made it portable – made it something that will outlive them, something that is transmissable to others who may or may not have ever heard of them, and something to which they have personally contributed, so that reality itself grew and expanded by their act of elucidating and spreading it. That’s authority, friends. EF Hutton wishes he had that authority. “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” When these people talk, people change their lives and the world around them. And sure, you could say that about a religious or political leader, I suppose, but often that’s not because they’re exercising real leadership – often it’s fuhrership – and there’s something qualitatively different in the kind of change that produces, and for whom, and for what.
The leadership exercised by a Dan Pink, Seth Godin, or David Ramsey is then the leadership of ensuring others can benefit from the reality they have capsulized, transmitted, and added to – that which constitutes their authority. They ensure that we can benefit by helping us clarify that reality, advance and add to it ourselves (far from following just a prescription, we’re explicating and expanding the meaning inherent in the reality they have made so comprehensible and portable), and helping us not simply repeat the meaning they have derived from what they have been doing, but rather do for ourselves, create or discover meaning that is unique to us in some way. It’s open-ended, not closed. They aren’t creating clones, they’re not seeking fuhrership, they’re exercising leadership. Yes, I know that fuhrer simply means ‘leader’ – think of Martin Neimoller’s wonderful book title of protest that earned him dissident status, “Jesus is Mine Fuhrer” – but that shared denotation (leader/fuhrer), yet distinct connotation, is why it’s such a useful term here.
We’ve all seen people who get a little of the empty kind of “authority” and exercise a little of the impotent kind of “leadership”. Invariably what they must fall back upon is power – power that bottlenecks greatness rather than uncorks the bottle to let it flow. As Hannah Arendt and Henry Morgenthau have pointed out, authority and leadership are the antithesis of power. When one reaches for power, one has abdicated any genuinely leadership and authority. One has replaced reality with merely the ability to harm someone, dismiss someone, or cause someone discomfort. One has replaced leadership with merely the ability to force compliance. Technically, what Arendt and Morgenthau compared was power and force. But the point is the same, technical terminology in the realm of political philosophy aside.
Ask yourself if the “leadership” that started the last several wars succeeded in turning foes into friends, in changing hearts and minds, or in merely compelling bodies to comply, or to die, or to be locked up somewhere out of the way. If you’re honest, and not merely political, you’ll have to admit that whatever that kind of leadership is, it’s not the kind we mean when we say Martin Luther King or Ghandi, or even Dan Pink, Seth Godin, or David Ramsey. When David Ramsey comes to my house with a helicopter and takes it over, along with my finances, forcing me to save and invest in things he thinks are wise, for my own good, and perhaps doing worse things to me if I don’t go along – then you have the kind of “leadership” that tempts lesser men – the kind of “authority” that corresponds to anything but reality. And whether they have a lot or a little, the quality of it has the same sort of debilitative effect. for however much it may seem expedient in the short term.
In a sea of leadership books, on carousels in airports, awaiting the briefcases of execs and climbing managers and ambitious team leaders, how many are pamphlets and tractates of techniques for getting people to go along with you vs. inspiration for doing something great and sharing it, to help others do great things? You see what I mean. We’re not talking the same language. Leadership: in the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you’re heads down studying the leadership of the status quo, any other kind of leadership or authority probably seems inconceivable.
- Six Extras that Build Power and Leadership (blogs.hbr.org)
- The Myth of Leadership (ictineducation.org)
- The Intangibles of Leadership (myventurepad.com)