God of Leadership

There are certain kinds of human activities that we observe behaviourally and then describe as ‘leadership.’ We call the people who do these activities ‘leaders.’ And as we describe leadership, we shape the parameters of what who recognize and ‘observe’ as leaders. Observation, description, and back again. Around and around it goes; a feedback loop. Along the way, we write lots of books and design conferences about how to be better leaders.

But what is leadership? Ask five different people, get ten different answers. In the meantime, there is apparently a lot of cash to be made by telling people the secrets of these mysterious ‘leadership skills.’ But who defines leadership? Who benefits the most by peddling concrete definitions about how ‘good leaders’ act in the world? Who gets to decide what makes a ‘great leader’ so ‘great’ in the first place?

To ponder… I’m thinking about leadership as something like reified cultural iconography. Like a cathedral, a ‘leadership conference’ is a brick and mortar edifice that converts a set of cultural ideas into physical infrastructure. The infrastructure is real. (And the take-home paycheque of leadership gurus — like the temple priests — is real, too.) But the concept of leadership, well, maybe it’s more like a god than anything else.

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Gender and Leadership: redefining and reconceptualizing power

When you think of the word ‘leadership,’ what comes to mind? What are your top three word associations? Got your list? Now, how many of the words that you just imagined reflect traditionally masculine characteristics?

In this episode, Shawna Lewkowitz (@ShawnaLewk) and Anne-Marie Sanchez (@anma_sa) discuss some big questions about gender and leadership: How has our contemporary concept of leadership evolved over time? Is our current idea leadership sufficient to encompass the many skill sets and ways of being in the world that have been traditionally considered as ‘feminine’? Would a society of gender parity have a different definition of leadership than we do?

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The Achilles’ Heel of Democracy

Aristagoras, the puppet tyrant of the Miletus (an ancient Greek city on the Eastern coast of the Aegean Sea), was never one to miss an opportunity to expand his political power.

Sensing a chance to leverage fear over the growing power of Persia, he concocts a rebellion against the Persians who propped him up on the throne. It is a brash bid to establish his own regime. But his attempt to overthrow his masters fails miserably. Now, suddenly, he realizes that he desperately needs more troops if he is to survive Persia’s retaliation for his treachery.

To recruit help, Aristagoras travels across the Aegean Sea, imploring other Greek cities to join his insurrection.

His first stop is Sparta. Gaining an audience with Cleomenes, the Spartan king, Aristagoras promises an easy victory and vast riches if Sparta would only join his cause. Cleomenes asks for two days to consider the alliance proposal. When two days had passed, Cleomenes asks for even more information, in order to estimate how long the campaign would take. Weighing the matter further, Cleomenes finally refuses Aristagoras’ invitation to go to war.

Aristagoras desperately stoops to bribing him into an alliance, but Cleomenes’ eight year old daughter reminds her father to walk away before he could be corrupted by the promise of money. (Herodotus 5.49-51)

Having failed in his attempt to recruit the Spartans, Aristagoras makes his way to Athens, his need for allies now critical.

Before a large, democratic assembly of Athenians, Aristagoras repeats the arguments he had used in Sparta, promising easy victory and vast spoils. Anxious for Athenian support, Aristagoras proceeds to promise everything he can possibly imagine, bowing to the assembly’s every whim, dream, and inclination. The Athenians are won over, and pledge twenty ships to join the uprising against Persia.

It is here that the chronicler of this story – the fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus – inserts a compelling observatory remark: “Apparently it is easier to deceive many people than one person, for Aristagoras could not impose on Cleomenes, one single man, but he succeeded with convincing thirty thousand Athenians.” (Herodotus 5.97.2, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, )

While Herodotus’ comment might be interpreted as a sarcastic jab at the Athenians for so foolishly joining such an ill-fated military mission, it is also a prescient sociological hypothesis. Sometimes convincing a crowd does indeed seem less cumbersome than convincing a single individual: all you need to do is appeal to the urges of the broadest common denominator, and then let the power of affiliation and in-group/out-group identity do the rest of the work for you.

Convincing a single, isolated, rational individual to join you in a war can be difficult, especially when that individual stands to personally bear the responsibility for the outcome of their decision. However, put that very same individual in an agitated mob of thirty thousand other people and it might be a whole different story. In a huge assembly, it feels like no single person is really on the hook for the collective opinions and decisions of the body.

This is partly why crowds create such powerful feedback loops of anonymous self-reinforcement. And sometimes, as Herodotus observed, they only need a small nudge to initiate this snowball effect. Once they get rolling, bandwagons are a force unto themselves: they become dangerous threats to passive onlookers on the ground, and they only gain momentum as more people jump on board.

Remember that being a member of the crowd makes you think differently. When you feel like you resonate with the majority opinion, it might be a good idea to ask for a few days to think about it, and then show up with some objective questions.

Herodotus’ account of the Athenian assembly is also a timeless warning: an inflamed populist agenda is the Achilles’ heel of democracy. The destruction of the state is always as imminent as the next provocateur who can whip the masses into an irrational frenzy — into a spiral of ideologically nonsensical self-destruction.

One of the greatest lessons taught by the history of democracy: be extremely suspicious of the person who promises anything and everything to the mob. Time shows such individuals for what they truly are: needy, desperate tyrants.

[An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume XIII – Inventing a Planet]

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Don’t mind your own business

I’m walking home on Wednesday night. It’s about ten o’clock.

“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!”

I hear a panicked woman’s scream about half a block away, coming across the street, from the far side of a parking lot. At a distance, I see three people, two men and a woman. The woman is obviously trying to get away, weaving her way through parked vehicles. Evasive manoeuvres.

I divert my path and head towards the trio with a quickened stride. I am extremely self-conscious of the fact that I have zero plan of action. It is like walking into the final exam for a course you never attended. But worse.

But ignoring the situation is clearly impossible. You can’t ‘unhear’ a scream. To walk away is to be an accomplice to whatever is happening over there.

The three individuals are now moving in the opposite direction. The woman makes an attempt to cross the street to create more distance between her and the two men, but one of them keeps pace with her. He attempts to constrain her by the arm, but she pulls away and trips over the sidewalk curb. By now, I am rushing over as quickly as I can. The third man, following behind more slowly, arrives at about the same time I do. All three individuals appear to be in their early twenties.

I have no idea what to do. Social convention does not provide a clear script for confrontations like this. So I approach the woman and ask, “Are these men bothering you?”

(Let’s be honest: I probably heard that question in a movie or something.)

The woman does not hesitate. “Yes!”

Several things suddenly happen all at once:

The first man — the one who had followed her across the street first — lets out an exasperated grunt and throws his hands in the air, looking at the woman angrily.

The second man — the more aloof of the two — steps forward. “It’s ok, man. I’m completely sober.”

“We’re all co-workers,” says the first man.

I have no idea what is happening. “Do you feel safe?” I ask the woman, not really sure what else to say.

She replies, “No. I, I’m not… I mean, yes. No, it’s my birthday and I just…”

I suddenly realize that I was talking to an extremely inebriated individual.

“You need to feel safe,” says the second man to the woman.

It only took a millisecond for me to see the situation in an entirely different light. What first appeared to be two men assaulting a woman in a parking lot suddenly became two co-workers trying to get their intoxicated and belligerent colleague home safely after a birthday celebration.

Paradigm shift. It’s lingo and jargon, but there is probably no better description for what just happened in my mind.

While driving past, a paramedic had witnessed the woman wrestle free from the first man and fall on the curb. He had parked the ambulance just down the street and now arrives at the group on foot. The woman grows agitated at the sight of personnel in uniform, and hurls several insults at the paramedic, despite his reminders that he is not a cop, and merely concerned for her safety. She is not a happy drunk. Not at all.

It is obvious that she is so stoned that her present unwillingness to cooperate with her concerned colleagues extends to just about everyone else in society. The paramedic radios in the situation. It is clear that the police are about to get involved.

“I don’t have to deal with this shit,” says the second man, the most sober of the three. “I’m out.” He disappears down the street.

The first man — the man who I originally thought was the primary ‘aggressor’ — stays with us, unwilling to ‘abandon’ his friend to two strangers (namely, the paramedic and I). This, for him, is obviously a bar night gone terribly wrong. He is admittedly at his wit’s end, aware that continuing to ‘chase’ a screaming person through downtown is an ineffective tactic, but currently without recourse to a better solution.

We wait. Trying to keep the woman preoccupied and distracted, in an attempt to dissuade her from wandering off. But at the first sign of the police, she takes off again, with her colleague following her, against more protest and yelling. The paramedic and I chat with the officer briefly, before he continues after them, around the corner and out of sight into the night.

With the police now involved, the paramedic and I talk for a minutes and then go our separate ways.

As I continue to walk home, I reflect on how seismically wrong I initially was about the whole situation. From across the parking lot, I had entirely misjudged what was happening. My frame of reference had ‘defined’ the situation in my mind: to the point that I did not even notice how drunk the young woman actually was until asking her a few questions. Heuristics are powerful, powerful indeed. It is amazing when you catch a glimpse of your own automaticity at work.

At the same time, ignoring those initial instincts to intervene and ‘get involved’ would have been irresponsible, selfish. For as much as my intuitions and hunches were incorrect, acting on them was still the right thing to do. To ignore the impulse to intervene would be to rationalize myself into an excuse for just ‘minding my own business’ (possibly to the harm of someone else).

In hindsight, I think I did the right thing: I asked questions. Just two questions, but adequate questions to counter-check my own blinding biases in the moment. (Clearly, the worst possible approach would have been to assume the role of a ninja, vigilante, or righteous liberator from the outset. Had I not asked any questions, my initial response could have been categorically inappropriate for the actual situation.) I can’t pat myself on the back for calculating this approach, but the lesson learned will doubtlessly inform my tactic, response, and assumptions next time.

Don’t just ‘mind your own business’… but do start with questions.

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