Against the myth of leadership (and for a eulogy of following)

Against the myth of leadership (and for a eulogy of following)

Opinions - The new theories are portrayed as post-hierarchical, but they are not, because they divide the world into leaders and followers. The true agent of change is the one who does not feel like a leader

By Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 11/11/2022

Leadership is one of the sacred words in the religion of the new capitalism of the 21st century. The thinking, and above all, the practice of the phenomena now called 'leadership' are actually very ancient. It is not difficult to find in the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to Max Weber, ideas and even actual theories on the creation and management of leaders and on their decline. Economic science hasn’t dealt with it much, because it has always been more interested in markets and individual rational actions than in organisations and complex collective phenomena, although some great economists (Vilfredo Pareto, for example) have written some very neat pages on the ideologies that produce leaders and then eliminate them. Sociology and management have been more engaged in this topic, because, in essence, leadership theories are variants and (less sophisticated) developments of theories of authority and the exercise of power in human groups, including enterprises: the classic topics in the social sciences.

With the new millennium, however, something very important has changed around leadership. Courses on how to become a leader, how to recognise the 'traits' of a leader, how a leader can influence a team to generate change, and much more, have grown at a high and continuous rate, until invading the departments of all economic and social sciences, engineering, philosophy and even theology. An even more recent, but no less worrying phenomenon is the expansion of leadership training courses in civil society organisations and communities, even in convents and spiritual movements, in church bodies, where superiors and parish priests are beginning to self-define themselves using the new words of leadership. The advertisements for leadership courses at business schools state that the course is aimed at “experienced managers and executives and anyone who aspires to leadership positions or is required to be a leader”. And if you leaf through the many dedicated manuals, the definitions all look similar: leadership is the ability to influence that a particular person (the leader) has over employees (followers). The followers are driven by the charisma of the leader - charisma is a used and abused word - to work in a group where they are directed and guided by the leader. So, in a nutshell: leadership is understood as the ability of a leader to influence one or more people. Thus, words such as managers, executives, heads of office, coordinators have become old and outdated, linked to a capitalism that is too trivial. Leaders, unlike the old managers, have charisma, charm, attractiveness, and the ability to persuade and seduce.

A first question: where did the need to turn managers into leaders originate? Where did this irresistible urge to give heads of office or coordinators a charismatic flair spring from? Certainly, capitalism has changed, it has come out (or is coming out) of the factories and assembly lines, and today obtaining the consent and obedience (another old word) of workers has become more difficult. Moreover, the culture of post-modernity creates post-patriarchal young people, who are less used to and less prepared for the virtues of obedience from superiors, but more sensitive to the values of freedom, equality, consent, and contract. The old companies of the twentieth century were born also and above all because hierarchy cost less than individual contracts: negotiating every action with every worker requires an enormous amount of time and resources; hence the idea that it makes the organisation faster and more efficient if the hiring of a person is done within a broad labour contract, where the individual tasks are entrusted largely to the hierarchy. But for hierarchy to work, you need employees who value it, see it as good and share in it. This is how, with the arrival of the generation of workers of the new millennium, the figure of the leader is born: this one does not need hierarchy (so it is said) in order to make the organisation work, because the consensus and adhesion of the collaborators arise from the leader’s charisma, their ability to convince, their persuasion and authority. Leadership appears to be more post-modern, egalitarian, non-hierarchical and even fraternal than the old organisational theories of the 20th century, and also certainly more ethical and respectful of everyone's dignity. But is this really the case?

The author of this article is convinced of the opposite, namely that theories of leadership are much more hierarchical than those of the Fordist-Taylorist factory - and more chauvinistic, too. The real difference is of a narrative type: they are talked about as post-hierarchical theories and practices without being so. Why? The many different leadership theories have one decisive fact in common: they divide the world into leaders and followers. Some people, for the most diverse reasons (personality, vocation, talents, role, etc.) are leaders; others, and they are many more, followers, i.e. members or workers who freely accept to be influenced, seduced, convinced by their leader, and who are also happy with this influence that they freely undergo. Of course, a follower today may become a leader tomorrow, or even though he is a follower of a leader in office A, he may be a leader in office B where he will have other followers whom he will in turn have to seduce and capture with his charisma. And so on, ad infinitum. But let us ask ourselves at this point: would we like to live in such a world? To work in offices, departments, companies where our manager is our leader? We would probably simply dread it. Because it is a much more illiberal society than the old 20th century one. This is not the first time that the deep limitations of leadership have been highlighted. Indeed, new adjectives have sprung up in recent years: relational, community, participative leadership, and even leadership of communion. But, one should realise, the problem does not concern the adjective: it is directly connected to the noun: leadership. But that's not all. Economic theory teaches us that some of the most important social phenomena are explained by mechanisms of adverse selection: without meaning to, institutions end up in certain contexts selecting the worst people. Put differently: who registers for a leadership course? Economic theory tells us that it is very likely that “those who aspire to become leaders” are the people least suited to “lead and guide” teams, because loving the “profession” of leadership and being a good leader are not at all the same thing. Think of political leadership: in all countries, the best politicians have emerged and still do so during major crises, when there are no ‘schools for politicians’. In times, however, when being a politician becomes a profession, which gets associated with power and money, political schools tend to generate poor politicians.

Theories of leadership are very much influenced by the model of the charismatic leader. In Western tradition, the charismatic leader is par excellence the prophet, i.e. someone whom people follow freely because of his inherent authority. Unfortunately, leadership theorists do not know that prophets (the biblical ones for sure) have never considered themselves leaders. The major prophets of the Bible (from Moses to Jeremiah) did not feel themselves to be leaders, nor did they want to be leaders. The mere thought of having to lead someone terrified them. They were chosen from among the discarded, the people considered as the last ones; some of them are also stutterers and disabled but capable of listening and above all of following a voice. It all serves to tell us that those who in life have succeeded in a leading role in some process of change have been able to do so because first they had learned to follow a voice, first they had learned how to follow. Prophets are men and women of failure, whereas leadership is presented as the way to achieve the other magic word of our capitalism: success, being the winners. People of success, followed and flattered, were the false prophets who often came out of the “prophetic schools” that churned out multitudes of prophets by trade and for-profit charlatans.

The first law that the great biblical wisdom left us reads: “beware of those who present themselves as a candidate to become a prophet, because they are almost always false prophets”, or, we might say today, simply narcissists. Furthermore, history and real life tell us that one becomes a 'leader' simply by doing one's job and nothing else really, and then one day maybe someone imitates us and thanks us, and we don't even notice. But the day someone feels like a leader and starts behaving like one, people and groups start getting unwell, and many individual and collective neuroses are produced. And when communities wanted to produce their own leaders at home, they selected too many people who were incapable of that task, even when they had the best of intentions. Simply because leaders are not trained, and if you try to train them you create something strange and not infrequently dangerous. So imagining leadership courses for young people is extremely dangerous. But they keep multiplying, because leadership schools attract the many who desire to be leaders and delude themselves that they can buy the fulfilment of this desire on the market. “Leadership” courses for those who are already in a coordinating and leading role would be a different matter, but they would have to be very different from those in circulation today. These courses should help to reduce the damage that ‘leaders’ produce in their groups, to train in the deponent virtues, meekness and humility, to learn to follow their colleagues.

Leaders have a necessary and vital need for followers: but who decides to be Robin in a world where only Batman's moral qualities are exalted? So where is that freedom so fervently proclaimed by these theories? The ideal workplace is that of a community of people where everyone simply plays his or her part in a cooperative game, a team where everyone follows everyone else in reciprocity, in the dignity of equal tasks. This is an adult world, where work is directed and there is dialogue with the people. If at a certain point someone has to perform coordinating, governing and accountability functions, they will simply be doing their job as I do mine: they will not have to lead anyone, they will not have to influence anyone, they will only have to play their necessary part in the one collective game. However, if this person acts as a leader, we call that manipulation. Finally, it is really surprising that the Christian world is attracted to theories of leadership today, considering that it was born of Someone who founded everything on following, and who one day said: “None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader.” (Mt 23:10 - in: CEV)

We certainly need agents and actors of change, always, especially in a time of great change such as ours. We especially need people who take responsibility for their choices. We have a vital need of this especially when our businesses and communities are stagnant and static. These change makers are unlikely to come from schools of leadership: they can only emerge from meticulous communities and businesses that will take to the streets, that will take to the dusty streets of the cities and even more so of the peripheries. That’s where the new leaders await us, who will be agents of change precisely because they will not feel like the new leaders. And they will be leaders all together, all different and all equal, in the reciprocity of following.

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