- The best leaders don’t derive their standing from official lines of authority.
- Capitalist systems can create an imbalance in the distribution of wealth and status and this is driving our desire for leadership.
To lead responsibly is to think deeply about the world you would like to live in and the changes you would like to make.
By Anthony Sharpe.
It’s something I hear more and more these days – a disconcerting trend at dinner parties. What do you do? Where do you work? Then the big one: how many people do you have under you?
Perhaps it’s an age thing. At 34, the mid-30s career rapture is well underway. We watch on anxiously as one by one our friends are snatched from their meek existence into the management class.
Will we be next? Or will we be left behind? Then comes the new house (a better school zone), the new car, the exotic holiday, the insistence that we simply must sample the trendy new, but incredibly expensive, restaurant downtown.
It seems someone’s being shoulder-tapped, offered leadership training, or merely talking about leadership as though it’s an end in and of itself.
Like such timeless classics as how much do you earn? What college did you go to? Or their modern day equivalent – how many Facebook friends do you have? It’s unashamedly status conscious: a way of quickly surveying the social landscape to see where you stand. Status mapping in other words.
But it’s only once you consciously sound it out that the phrase reveals the full extent of its crassness. How many – implicit here is that numbers count, which “obviously” correlates with one’s importance. People – okay, at least they’re people, but we usually don’t bother to describe these people, or assign them roles, we’re more interested in head counts. Under you – one has an image of a towering figure standing victorious atop a human pyramid; a faceless human scaffold.
Indeed, it’s the kind of conversation you might imagine two well-heeled 15th century lords having over a pint of ale at the local inn. Instead, it’s from a class of people who seem to have forgotten what class is; or worse, never knew.
And it’s phrases like this that make me question our modern day notion of leadership in the workplace. What is leadership exactly? Why do we seek it? And do our motives matter?
Wherever I turn it seems someone’s being shoulder-tapped, offered leadership training, or merely talking about leadership as though it’s an end in and of itself.
We seem increasingly willing to exchange meaning and balance in our work in order to manage people, spend our days developing KPIs, and attend high-level meetings.
While it would come across as a little brash to declare your explicit desire to raise your social status, dress it up as leadership, and we’ll let it slide. Yet what is it that we really want? To affect positive change in the world, or to merely lead a ship: where any ship – whatever the cargo, whoever the crew, whatever the destination – will do?
I suspect if you asked the captain of a sports team “how many people do you have under you?” it would be met with a blank stare. And it’s not because of all the knocks to the head or that the answer is clearly somewhere between 11 plus the reserve bench. It’s because it wouldn’t make sense.
While the captain is unquestionably the leader, calling the shots on the field, acting as spokesperson, even earning more, they do not have people under them. Rather, they have people with them. A team.A team doesn’t necessarily have “highers and lowers”. It’s one entity.
There are different roles and responsibilities, sure, but each is equally vital, understood, and dignified. Some bring creative flair, others steely resolve, or a strategic vision that guides and inspires.
Indeed, as leadership theorist Simon Sinek argues in his memorable TED Talk, the best leaders don’t derive their standing from official lines of authority. We follow them not because we have to but because we want to.
The virtuous leader puts their body, career, and reputation on the line for their team and in doing so builds genuine, enduring trust and respect.
In other words, the best leaders are bleeders, motivated by cause not applause. They don’t simply decide they want to be leaders then go looking for a ship.
Great leaders emerge in context, where their skills are noticed, their application admired, and their leadership qualities cultivated over time.
In contrast, a naked desire to lead without any particular secondary goal, purpose or end in mind is a peculiar thing – a strange kind of socially sanctioned megalomania. Similar to wanting to be famous, successful, loved, or admired for its own sake, whatever the means (reality TV or some homemade movie).
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As Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, opined in the Scientific American: “Apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behaviour.”
From the moment you wake, Harsanyi says, “you think about where you are in relation to your peers”.
Our natural desire to cooperate and fit in is matched only by our desire to elevate ourselves above others. It feels good to raise our status. It has a survival advantage after all. In crude evolutionary terms, more status often means more resources, more mates, and a better chance of getting one’s genes through to the next stage of the game.
The ship of our collective political consciousness sits ever lower in the water, and we’re less and less able to respond decisively as “one” to the critical issues of the day.
Status is an intrinsically relative concept too, as books like Robert Frank’s Darwinian Economy explore. Studies show that given the choice, people will typically prefer a smaller house and less wealth (forgoing a larger house and more wealth in absolute terms), in order to have relatively more than their neighbour, brother, or peers. So what on the surface looks like a desire for wealth, may in fact be an unconscious attempt to advertise one’s genetic health.
Of course, we’re not merely status-hungry social primates competing for Facebook likes and Twitter followers like sweet jungle berries. We’re capable of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism. Whichever force tends to dominate in any given time and place however is typically a function of the wider cultural milieu we find ourselves in. And ours is one increasingly shaped by the inexorable forces of global commerce, interstate and interpersonal competition, and rising inequality.
Yet while we’re all striving to be master and commander of our own dinghy, the social distance between us continues to widen.
Less equal societies tend to be more status-oriented and consumerist than more equal societies, and crucially exhibit higher rates of narcissism. People constantly fret about where they stand in relation to others; our self-worth a function of our net worth. And of course the more stuff we can buy and command, the greater the opportunity to advertise that we’ve made it.
Sometimes this stuff includes the people under us. Thus, it seems rising anxiety around inequality is fuelling a lust for status, for which the leadership drive is just one symptom.
Our corporate culture is perhaps partly to blame. Our role models are no longer the loyal battlers of old, but highly paid corporate mercenaries skilled in the art of change management and hit-and-run corporate restructuring.
These leaders exert a disproportionate influence over the formation and transmission of societal norms, setting the tone from the top. Some even boast their own TV series where they make entertainment out of abusing and humiliating staff, or gleefully relish telling an underling they’re fired. It’s no wonder we’re all climbing over each other to get our heads above the high-water mark of social approval.
Yet while we’re all striving to be master and commander of our own dinghy, the social distance between us continues to widen. The ship of our collective political consciousness sits ever lower in the water, and we’re less and less able to respond decisively as “one” to the critical issues of the day.
Unquestionably, some have what we might call leadership qualities, and we must ensure these skills are given space to grow. But why we seek leadership and how we talk about leadership – having people under us for example – matters. Some will dismiss such turns of phrase as mere words. Yet words matter. Words can reveal – and sometimes conceal – how we collectively think about power relations within society and at work. They shape how we view, relate to, and treat the led (or people as they are sometimes called).
So, what if instead of seeking leadership as a proxy for social status, we asked: what kind of world do I actually want to live in? What kind of change do I wish to affect? What are my skills, interests, ideas, and capabilities (both inside and outside of work)? And where might these be best deployed?
In this respect, leadership becomes just another tool among many to achieve our life goals, plans and projects. Not a hollow power play. Of course, it may still turn out that leadership is the best way to realise your goals and ambitions. But it pays to consider the direction we’re heading in – and why – before setting sail.
Anthony Sharpe was runner up in the New Philosopher Writers’ Award IV with this article, which was first published by newphilosopher.com.
This article was published in the March 2015 issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.