Two Ideas of Leadership

I sometimes catch up with ideas and concepts long after they were needed. Call it slowness if you like, but this is not about slowness of wit but the lingering of love that I am talking here. This is not about missing out on something while I am at it, but rather indulging in an ongoing engagement even when the immediate need has been fulfilled. So, I really discovered the fascinating world of economic history - so much so that I may end up reading those books while on holiday - only after my formal education in economics was over. My obsession with John Dewey came only after I have completed my Masters in Adult Education, and I believe I understand him better now as I have completed the course earlier. 

My current reading concerns leadership. I have got to it in a roundabout way. It all started with Vienna, where I am planning a short holiday around Easter, and Freud, upon whom I stumbled upon in course of my engagement with Modernity, itself a hangover from the Coursera course on Modern and the Post-modern, which I much loved. However, my concerns with leadership fit into my late-thinking pattern because I completed teaching a course, which I taught for two years in a London College, on leadership to aspiring middle managers. The course - called Leadership Journey - was about enabling reflective practice, and we spent quite a bit of time on talking about the ideas of leadership within the course. 

While teaching the course, I used two contrasting models of Hitler and Gandhi - each charismatic in their own way, but each a bit of an oddball as well - primarily to tease out the ideas of leadership that the learners have had. My idea of focusing on Hitler, rather than any other comparatively benign or less controversial authoritarian personality, was indeed to question our natural association of leader as the commander. I wanted to contrast this with the idea of leader as a sheep-dog, using a term that late CK Prahalad used to use, someone who provides direction. I did use various videos, including a TED talk by General Stanley McChrystal (see below), where he brings out this idea of leader as a sheepdog in the Military context (where, one would guess, leader as a commander idea will still hold).

But, now, I discover Freud. I am fascinated by the view Freud held - that craving for authority is a normal human trait and therefore, Fascism is somewhat inevitable - and see how this helps my broader point about two distinct ideas of leadership. In one, the leader is the father, the source of command and authority, that we crave. This is a very potent idea of leadership, and therefore, Fascism recurs so insistently, notwithstanding all our wisdom and knowledge of experiments such as those of Stanley Milgram or Phillip Zimbardo. Essentially, from a Freudian view, the more confused we are, the more conflicted our inner selves are - just as globalisation invades our community lives and many people are feeling caught out - the more we crave for an authoritarian leader who will offer us one meaning, a route to salvation and peace. This is common, all-pervasive, intensely human, and can appear at any time in any human society. Our ideas of a hero, nobility, leadership are all informed by this craving for direction. This is why we often resent leaders who do not give us answers but rather invite us to look for it ourselves. 

The other idea of leadership starts from here, where the leader is simply the enabler for others to find their own meaning. This is utopian, too optimistic, from the Freudian corner. In fact, this idea of leadership amplifies the very problem we expect the leaders to solve - lack of one unified meaning so that our ego, self, can resolve the conflict between our super-ego and the id - and the diversity of ideas break down, more often than not, the simple characterisation of the world that Fascism provides in ingroup/ outgroup terms. The leader as a sheep-dog, indeed he is still authoritarian as he directs, may therefore sometimes fail our cravings - and indeed, is unfit, for many people, for the leadership stereotype they wish to idolise.

As I go through this, I realise that this latter model of leadership is not weak and to be discarded, but rather, we just use a different label for this - teacher. This is what the teacher does - a good teacher is who allows his wards to find their own meaning in learning and thereby make the learning stick - and they could, if temporarily, help us see ourselves and resolve our conflicts. And, in many ways, we need more teachers of this kind rather than leaders who would fulfill our cravings for authority and direction, in order to create a Higher Order society. But this act of denying Freudian inevitability requires great courage and deliberate action. This was indeed the point I was supposed to teach in my course.



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