Leadership Notes: Leadership of Free Men (and Women)
A leader may not be an identified individual that we would like to believe. Or that's what celebrity obsessed mass media wants us to believe. Rather, more often than not, a leader emerges - based on the context - and other people, followers, choose to follow them. Think of the first man on the dancing floor and you know what I am talking about.
So, leadership is not a position or a title, but a relationship, that one enters with others from time to time.
In a way, then, followers make the leaders. Without them, there will be no leaders. Imagine dancing alone on the floor. Writing a book that no one reads. Standing up on Speaker's Corner without onlookers. We think of people who do them as crazies, not as leaders.
So, then, why, in business, we assume leadership comes with position, or gets embedded in title? Because, indeed, business tries to fashion itself more after the hierarchical organizations such as the Military than after life. One can trace that back to Max Weber: Along with many ideas Germans taught the modern world, the bureaucratic leader proved one of the most durable.
But, as I argue, this is the key problem with leadership today. It is seen as a position, a title, not as a relationship that needs to be built and entered into. There is no point pretending leadership; leadership has nothing to do with height, skin colour or accent. These, alongwith the story that the leaders should have an MBA, are myths spun endlessly by the mass media, which needs identified individuals for its own purposes. Leadership as a relationship would not sell celebrity gossip magazines.
Now, the key problem with the idea of leader as a person is that this is the extension of the superman theory. This is based on the fable that some men are more equal than others. This is not a doctrine at ease with modernity, which assumes that everyone has a chance. This is a sort of caste system [why only blame Indians for it?] embedded in our system of politics, business and the media.
This is also why great, enduring, leadership looks so puzzling to us. Consider Mother Teresa. I was so unimpressed when I met her: She was a frail, small, aged lady, much shorter than I would have ever imagined such a 'towering' figure to be. Indeed, she took only a few seconds to completely alter my ideas of leadership: When she spoke, with humility, comfort and confidence, we had to give up our pretensions and defer to her, because she had such a 'presence'. In the usual scale of leadership, Gandhi and Martin Luther King would have looked awkward. But they led people by defining a consistent relationship: Not by the weight of their titles or 'charisma', but with odd things like truth and sacrifice, compassion and humility.
Why we remember them as leaders, while our pretentious corporate honchos fall by the wayside, is simple: Because we are essentially free men and women. At least, we wish to be free. Leaders are those who we align with, defer to, in our own free will, because they help us strive towards freedom, towards being better individuals. That's the essence of a leadership relationship. I know this is based on an essentially optimist view of mankind, but let's accept we use leadership as a positive term: Some of the mass murderers may have 'led' others, but that's not what we usually refer to when talking about leadership.
So, essentially, leadership as theory is based on bureaucratic assumptions that leadership is a title, which is a permanent tag that an individual carries. But, I say, the Leader is a modern myth: This is a theory we use to limit freedom. Besides, this leadership is based on fear. Fear of losing something - job, nationality, group membership - do not allow us to strive to be better than what we already are. Leadership, in this sense, is stuck in the mud of status quo.
But leadership as a practice, of the real world, of the kind we don't write about but know when it happens, is a relationship that emerges, and often, it is little people, frail and awkward, who show us the power of it. Often, it is a transitory relationship, like the solitary man on dance floor, or the one who starts a Mexican wave. In a way, leadership is the act of losing the solitariness. This leadership is based on freedom. People follow, because the leader appeals to their individual urges to become free, from fear, from mediocrity and from limitations. Contrast that with the leadership in theory: People do not follow because they want to remain in a group, anonymous. Rather, they follow because they want to be themselves.
So, I rest my case: Leadership is a relationship. A leader is an individual of the moment, not a 'special' one. The act of leadership is to the journey from fear to freedom. Leader leads so that he is not alone: In fact, the act of leading helps him/ her lose his/her solitariness. People follow, not because they want to hide in anonymity, but because they want to stand out, be themselves. This is the leadership of free men (and women). This is the only kind of leadership we need.