In an era still dominated by a naive belief in the scientific method1 many people believe that if they just diligently follow a step-by-step guide on leadership, in addition to imitating what their current leaders do, that will somehow eventually result in them becoming leaders too. But that is the mindset of those who obey, not those who lead. If it leads anywhere, it is not some place new other than a dull reproduction of the status quo.
Having the courage to disobey and venture alone into the unknown because you feel something better can be built there as an enactment of independent thought instead of a juvenile reaction to authority constitutes a large part of what it means to lead.
But where to? You’d think an answer to that question would make an essential chapter in every contemporary leadership book. Yet a casual glance at the contents of Leadership 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell, one of the most celebrated authors on leadership alive today, reveals that knowing where to lead is apparently not something a contemporary leader needs to know2. Perhaps the fact that we’re more interested in becoming leaders than in knowing where to lead is why we’ve been going nowhere.
Leadership is not just about expertise. What’s the value of expertly leading people over a cliff? Not much; by that logic Hitler was a great leader. To make a fetish out of the techniques of leadership is to glorify the means over and above the ends. It is the hidden adoration of might over right. I think we can do better than that. We have to.
We need to examine what the good life is before trying to lead others to it. You can’t be a good leader if you’re not a wise one, and wisdom is the province of philosophy, not management. We need to integrate lessons from both, willfully trespassing departmental borders in our search for excellence.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget that successful leaders often abolish the conditions that make them necessary, just like teachers through teaching students successfully, lessen the gap between themselves and their students till it disappears, thereby creating an equality that enables a more sublime relationship to emerge3.
- Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did a good job in demolishing the idea that there is a single prescriptive scientific method and that science progresses in a uniform way by following its dictates.
- Don’t be fooled into thinking Chapter 4 “How Should I Prioritize my Life?” has anything to do with overall ends. It’s more about how to prioritize — not what those priorities should be and why.
- See Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 1955. New York: Owl Books, 1990, p.96-97.