It’s Time To Start Thinking

I am not a fan of leadership.

This is probably something that startles most people.  Everything we’ve been taught states that leaders are desperately needed to provide direction, and to set people down the right path.  The greatest companies on Earth excel because of their leadership, after all.  In religion, leadership is tremendously vital, as spiritual direction comes directly from a higher power.  Both of these examples are absolutely right, of course, and their clear advantages cannot be ignored.

But this principle fails largely because it is far too optimistic.  When we do come across a great leader, it is an incredible blessing.  Far more often, though, our leaders fall into a gray area–one that makes it much more difficult to tell right from wrong.  In many cases we don’t know them very well (such as in politics, where American distrust of Congress is soaring), and in others we follow those that were appointed leaders through some process we had nothing to do with.  We simply accept this as fact because it is the status quo.

More than anything, we know we badly need leaders because we’re told we badly need leaders.

I’d argue that this is far from the truth.  In too many situations we create a leader when one is not actually needed, and this almost always results in one individual becoming overpowered and everyone else becoming underpowered.  This in turn can cause resentment, and far too often it causes us to stop actively thinking for ourselves.  Trusting someone else to do the work is, unfortunately, vastly easier than actually doing the work.  This may be vital for hospitals and restaurants, but not for our day-to-day lives.

In contrast, the best leaders do not set direction, nor do they assume that they know more than everyone around them.  They listen. Instead of pushing down those “beneath” them, they elevate them upwards, and in doing so gain the tremendous power of collective thinking.  Let’s look at a hypothetical example:  two teams of twenty people, out in the wilderness, with only the goal of beating the other team to the finish line.  By and large, two types of scenarios can take place:

  1. One to three members of each team are elected as leaders, and the rest of the team follows. I believe this is by far the most common model, and of course it makes sense.  Someone has to step up and take control in order to get everyone moving in the same direction.  The clock is ticking.  Often these leaders are charismatic, and almost immediately they are looked upon to find the right path.  Their suggestions carry a great deal of weight, and in order to keep moving it becomes uncomfortable to openly contradict them.  Most people find themselves victims of “group think”, where ideas seem better just because everyone else is nodding along.  And the downside of this style, of course, is that a caste system inevitably emerges.  The group is split between leaders (the few) and non-leaders (the many), and regret and frustration quickly escalate—most of all among the more talented of those not leading.  Friendships also rarely cross this divide because of perceived inferiority.
  2. The twenty members of the team are considered equal, and a coordinator is assigned to facilitate discussions and organize group decisions. A rarer model, to be sure.  There are times when it is agreed upon, but dominant personalities inevitably stretch it at the seams in order to turn it into the leadership-first scenario (#1).  Not only will there always be people who think they are better than everyone else, but by definition there always are one or two people that are better than everyone else, and it is ever so tempting to turn leadership over to those that know the most.  But in this model, you have to stay the course—the biggest reason being that knowing more is far from knowing everything.  Even if the most talented members know best a remarkable 75% of the time, ignoring others’ input on the remaining 25% is a fatal mistake.  And so the leader in this case must absolutely be someone without ego.  It must be someone who excels in bringing out the best in everyone around them, not for their personal gain but solely for the gain of the entire group.

I have chosen recently to do everything in my power to pursue the second model, and to discourage leadership in its “usual” form whenever possible.  Whether it is a two-team race or a church group or a Fortune 500 company, we cannot continue to blindly trust the abilities of a select few.  This does not mean that we should ignore or berate our current leaders, though, which is another tragic mistake.  More often than not, these leaders are truly talented.  Instead, we have to stop taking things on faith and really listen.

We have to start thinking for ourselves.

In other words, it’s time to ignore the rhetoric, gossip and rumors that are inevitably going on around us.  We have to stop taking others’ opinions for our own.  I think you can imagine the results if everyone came to his or her own conclusions independently, and then a leader coordinated the results before working to bring the group to a consensus.   Even in those situations where the path is clouded with doubt, we would still retain the ability to look back and learn from our mistakes.

Because they’ll be our mistakes.

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