Lead Us Not

A vintage line drawing of stylized sheepI’ve never liked the concept of leadership, since leaders necessitate followers, and followers are what’s wrong with this planet. Not that we can’t all learn from one another. We not only can, we’d better. But the “one another” part of that is crucial. True role modeling is an all-way process, lubricated by the understanding that everyone has something to teach and something to learn.

Whenever a process congeals into an object, watch out. “Role models” are a whole nother animal from “role modeling.” Suddenly the egalitarian give-what-you-have, take-what-you-need model has mutated into a hierarchy where those who only teach make decisions for those who only learn. The latter greatly outnumber the former, but have abdicated their power en masse, so effectively that they are quite convinced they have none. Meanwhile, the meanest, greediest specimens of humanity are steering the ship. Is it any wonder there are rough waters ahead?

Sign that says don't follow me, I'm lost tooI had a conversation with a stranger about this once. I don’t recall how it came up, but the example under discussion was deciding what to do in a dangerous situation. She said in a situation like that, she’d be glad of someone to tell her where to go. “Even if it’s the wrong way?” I asked. She didn’t know how to answer this. As an opinionated person, I know perfectly well that force of belief is no measure of correctitude (it is too a word), but in her mind, authoritativeness and knowledgeableness were so inextricably linked that she couldn’t conceive of one without the other. Now that’s really dangerous.

The tragedy that can result from unquestioning acceptance of authority was all too graphically illustrated in the senseless, heartbreaking deaths of almost 300 passengers (mostly teenagers on a school trip) on the Korean ferry Sewol last year. The crew ordered them to retire to their cabins to await rescue, which they did. The crew were then rescued from the deck, while the ship slowly sank with the young passengers, trusting and trapped below.

So what’s the alternative to “leadership?” I was exposed to consensus decision-making quite early in life, first in political groups, and then in the workplace. It has a reputation for being a time-consuming process. I’ve surely been to some marathon consensus meetings, but I think it’s our extensive and contradictory training in domination and passivity that is to blame for that.

A graphic of a handshake between two people with the sun rising behind the clasped handsFor consensus to run smoothly, everyone in the room has to be committed to putting the greater good of the group above their personal ego needs of the moment – and everyone in the room has to believe that everyone else in the room has this commitment. In other words, consensus is trust-based rather than competition-based.

Americans are not the only ones with cultural training that conflicts with the assumptions at the foundation of consensus decision making. On the other end of the spectrum, people in cultures where group harmony (often understood as a lack of visible conflict) is valued above individual needs are also poorly prepared for consensus, as they may feel any assertion on their part is too much. Which is how 300 teenagers never got to see their twenties.
A picture from the back of a woman with her head bent forward In a featureless foggy space
Consensus decision-making successfully navigates the delicate but crucial balance between independent thought and cooperative action. Yet a lot of Americans have never heard of it, despite the fact that consensus-based deciding has been used in human cultures across history, and is present in subsets of American culture today (see Quakers). How is it that we use majority rule as if it’s the best or only system instead? Who made that decision?

Who did make that decision? Majority rule can be polarizing, since it allows a majority to completely ignore minority concerns. Well, cui bono (who benefits)? Who benefits from a win-lose scenario instead of win-win? Who’s in favor of gridlock in Congress, for example? Not you or me, I think, regardless of our political persuasion. And yet we are somehow stuck with this system that most voters feel is broken – how did that happen? Which takes us back to leadership.

Everyone has something to teach and something to learn.

At various times, one person or another has identified me as a “natural leader.’ Although I rejected this, I admit to being a highly analytical and verbally confident person, the kind of person who tends to dominate in groups. Consensus taught me that if I shut up and listened, quieter members of the group would not only surprise me with their thoughtfulness, but – gasp! – often come up with perspectives that I had never considered.

Would that have happened if I’d chosen to accept and identify with the leadership role some people wanted to thrust upon me? I doubt it. “Leader” is a privileged status, and privilege encourages the privileged to think their perspectives are just a bit better than everybody else’s (see “meritocracy”). No lesson in humility there.

All of the above is a discussion of interactional roles, not personality types, though the two are often confused. As I read through the Clifton Strengths, I recognize that there are certain personality traits (most of which I do not have) that are beneficial to groups – traits such as inclusiveness, or feeling pleasurably challenged by trying to make a lot of moving parts work together in the most productive possible way. Note that these strengths are strengths because they facilitate group decision-making processes about group concerns, not because they produce a person who can single-handedly make decisions on behalf of everyone else.
Several men and women of varied ages and races having a friendly discussion around a table in an office or classroom
When I was in my teens and all of these ideas were bubbling away in my brain and in the American consciousness, I read a scifi novel. I don’t remember what it was, but I think it was by Robert Heinlein. In his speculative future, the President of the United States was selected not by the populace, but by computers, who selected the person best-suited by experience and temperament for the role.

A picture of Donald Trump, making an unpleasant face and poking his finger in the airNobody wanted the job, but the person drafted by the computers dutifully accepted (this is long before the days of personal computers). When you compare that with the personality traits that promote a successful candidacy in our current system, well, it makes you think, doesn’t it?

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