Saturday, February 06, 2010

Keeping Expectations of Leadership in Check

It is a truism that leaders are few and followers are numerous. This is itself an inequality that we don't often contemplate, nor feel any compulsion to amend by direct action. No flurry of blog postings or activist group with a message statement to convey has ever proposed that we ought to consider revising this important discrepancy. This may be because the gap itself is likely a construct of biology, for whatever reason. One wishes perhaps the numbers would be a bit more balanced, certainly not flip-flopped, since if most of us were leaders, we'd never get anything accomplished. In that regard, herding cats might be putting it lightly. Still, as it stands, for whatever reason, those who lead hold minority status and as such they often easily manage to attract followers to their causes and private bandwagon. It is another paradox of human behavior that while most minorities find reduced numbers much to their detriment, those who lead find the fact that they are relatively few in number much to their benefit.

We always seem to return to the example of the Great Man or Great Woman, the almost superhuman being who through his or her personal skill fixes all outstanding problems and provides mass unity. We should really know better than to expect that one single person could save us from ourselves, but to some extent, it isn't surprising why can so easily opt for this belief. Two thousand plus years of a Christ-centered framework leads us to expect that a Messiah will rescue us, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not. This is true whether we're Christian, Jewish, or not a person of faith at all. I myself recognize that I'm still waiting for Jesus to return, and would gladly fall at his feet to offer my assistance if I knew for certain he had returned. If the Second Coming arrived, some would doubt to the very end, some would desire proof, and some would resist altogether purely for their own reasons. Many, however, would breathe a sigh of relief, and quickly fall in line behind him.

Recent developments with political leaders have showed what happens when power corrupts, temptation leads to bad decisions, or disappointment sets in when high hopes are not realized. There is certainly enough fault to spread around if we seek to assign blame. However, that is not exactly my intent with this post. Nor am I seeking to absolve those who let their own shortcomings destroy the good will and good stead they formerly held. With power, charisma, and charm comes temptation of all kinds--monetary gain and sexual gratification only but two of them. I seek to bring light, in part, to the fact that those in leadership roles who court the adoration of the crowds, instantly reap all the benefits and all of the drawbacks in the process. If I, for example, stand up before an attentive audience and impress them with the cogency of my arguments, the eloquence of my rhetoric, or otherwise strike a nerve, I can expect to receive compliments, flirtatious glances or conversation, and an instant kind of immediate attention and personal favor with those who until a moment before were complete strangers. Everyone wants to be my friend, at least for that moment.

A close associate is fond of advancing a particular theory concerning this phenomenon. His example concerns the immediacy of live music, but it works well in this context, too. As he puts it, the reason we find it so easy to be attracted to to musicians, in particular, is that we see our own best qualities reflected in whomever is singing or playing. A powerful emotional intimacy is present in that moment that perhaps speaks more to us and our condition than to those on stage. This concept may wash over political leaders as well, particularly when on the stump, particularly when their personal charisma renders them something close to celebrity. They inspire so much in us: adoration, trust, envy, hope, desire, and so on. That we would entrust them so willingly with all of these in the blink of an eye makes me wonder how anyone who stands out in front can survive for long, with or without the benefit of handlers. It takes a tremendously strong person to not succumb to distraction, properly handle the stress, stay on message, and not get waylaid by a thousand wild goose chases. It is precisely our demands upon which they must conform and though they never are allowed to forget, this doesn't mean that they're always in the easiest position to respond. We expect much in return for our trust and our affections and the conditions of the transaction are both numerous and exacting.

So long as we expect perfection from our leaders, we can never see them for their gloriously flawed humanity and never forgive them for their frailties. We sometimes treat these figures as though they were our lover, one which always must say the right thing at the right time and halfway read our minds. Assuming they were the keeper of our heart, we would then need to concede that we would need to love them not just for their best qualities, but also for their worst. We can easily be dismayed, demoralized, and distressed at the behavior and conduct of those we idolize, certainly, but forgiveness is a concept ultimately foreign to us far too often. If it arrives, it arrives late, if ever at all, and it is yielded grudgingly. How often have I "forgiven" someone by mentioning, "Well, I'll forgive you this once, but you better not do it again, or I'll never speak to you again".

This ought not excuse mediocrity, philandering, or a distressing turn towards hypocrisy, but it might better explain a bit better some of the hypocrisies buried within our minds. We often say we'd never want to be a celebrity, a politician, or anyone with the same degree of constant media exposure and with it a fishbowl work environment, but many of us would also jump at the chance if it were available to us someday. I'm not so much advancing a notion that we ought to Leave People in the Public Eye Alone™ but that we need to look within ourselves and examine why we thrust so much of our entire selves, dreams, and aspirations towards whomever might have ability, courage, or God-given talents of oratory and authenticity. They certainly use our faith in them for their own benefit, as is part of the beast, and hopefully never forget the potency of the dreams of thousands upon thousands. If this truly were a relationship rather than a social contract, there would be disturbingly equal proportions of sadism and masochism present.

As it stands now, this compact is a curious kind of two-step, whereby we give all of ourselves to whomever represents us formally, with the requisite number of strings attached that we put in place in an effort that ensure that our personal wish list is followed without in order and without flaw. As for those who would lead or stand out from the pack, raising the bar high, be it in music, entertainment, or politics sets a huge precedent in place and some can rise to the challenge by hitting another home run out of the park, though many fall short. It would seem, then, that the responsibility to keep things in proper proportion is everyone's. We may not be able to close the gap regarding the number of those who lead versus those who follow, but we can make strides toward adopting a much more feasible strategy, one that would lead to fewer headaches and fewer feelings of betrayal. To me, forgiveness could be a solution. And by this I don't mean forgiveness for selfish reasons like the ability to successfully cross off another item on a voluminous to-do list, but forgiveness out of a realization that doing so would encourage true healing. True healing leads to group health. If Jesus does return someday, he would expect nothing less.


PENolan said...

Comrade - I find the idea of forgiveness and acceptance is too big for this little box. I agree with you, though, and wish more people could look at the world with love than with the harsh judgement that comes from an inner emptiness and/or self-hate.

Of course, I herd cats for a living and what's not to love about a room full of two year olds? Except all that snot - but that's why we have tissues and soap & water.

It's a drag that so many grown-ups attribute the social mistakes of very young children to grown-up motives such as premeditated manipulation. Little kids aren't a bit like that. They certainly will try everything they can think of to get their own way - but it's not a bit sinister. It's how they make sure a loving, accepting adult is protecting them from all that scary stuff in the world and inside themselves.

Sadly, accepting adults are in short supply. Too many ego-driven, materialistic, overgrown adolescents are passing as adults.

Great post.
Each one teach one, and all that.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of a model I'm still trying to learn, described by SNCC founder Ella Baker as "group-centered leaders" -- instead of "leader-centered groups" that tend to have the obsessions and burdens you describe.

Searching the Web, I found a good essay on group-centered leaders by a climate change activist. Suggests that sometimes the assumed "leader" is really a kind of captive of the group, which had never occurred to me before.

Celebrity culture gives us Americans too much of a taste for hero leadership. Brecht had some lines about that in his play about Galileo.

Andrea: Unhappy the land that has no heroes!

Galileo: Unhappy the land that needs its heroes.