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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What do people mean when they say, ‘Science’?

What is science, exactly? Today we talk a lot about ‘evidence-based policy’ in government, academia, and in the media, but is there a widening gap in the way we define ‘evidence’ as a society?

Is ‘science’ just another segment on the evening news? How do we, as a general public, decide when to trust science? Do you believe the studies that say chocolate and coffee are good for you…or the other ones? How do you validate your beliefs about immunizing children?

Nadine Wathen (@nadinewathen) is a Full Professor in the Health Information Science Program in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. She is a Research Scholar at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children in Western’s Faculty of Education. Nadine holds an affiliate appointment in Western’s Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and is also cross-appointed to the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing. Her research develops and evaluates interventions for women and children experiencing violence, and seeks to enhance the science of knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) to ensure that new knowledge emerging from research is made available, in appropriate ways.

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Do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can offer?

There are interesting implications however you answer the question.

Several writers — Alain De Botton and Peter Sloterdijk come to mind — have considered the plight and future of the secular practice of community. The fulcrum of the discussion seems to boil down to commitment. Membership in a religious community is ‘transactional’ — a declaration of faith/devotion to a creed/doctrine in ‘exchange’ for belonging/identity.

In a sense, of course, all communities are transactional. (If you punch your friends in the face every time you see them, you will undoubtedly be seeing less of them.) But one could argue that religious communities tap into something more primordial. For example, in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Violent Extremism and Sacred Values, anthropologist Scott Atran speculates about the possibility that belief in the spiritual served as the psychological basis for civilization itself. Perhaps believing in gods was the evolutionary precursor to collectively believing in things like states and constitutions. Before we could believe in kings, laws, and borders, perhaps we had to nurture the capacity to believe transcendent ideas by first believing in things like gods and the idea of order itself?

One could make the argument that a religious community is unlike any other kind of community and that a religious community ‘delivers’ something that no other group of humans can provide. If you move into a new city, as a person of faith, you can probably look up a list of religious communities that share the essential points of your beliefs. Amazingly, at least to some extent, your deepest, most cherished tenets — the convictions that orientate you to and in the world — find resonance and affirmation. Your creeds are sung.

Conversely, if you move into a new community as a nonreligious person, your ‘innermost circle’ typically forms around shared interests and experiences — work, hobbies, civics, etc. But do these associations ever reach ‘religious-grade’ community in the support, solidarity, and inclusion they provide?

Can you be a part of a ‘religious-grade’ community without ‘religious-grade’ commitment?

On the other hand, what if religion doesn’t have any exclusive claim to the depth or legitimacy of community? Anecdotally speaking, there seems to be a ‘scale’ of social integration that correlates with any shared values — especially shared values held in spite of external pressure. Consider the bonds of a military division or any high-stress, dangerous work that requires unequivocal trust among team members. A potential implication here is that the ‘thing’ to which people commitment in unison may not necessarily need to be a supernatural proposition, but perhaps just about any cause, narrative, rhetoric, or identity will do. What matters is sharing it in common.

Furthermore, a sense of ‘duty’ may superficially differentiate religious communities from ‘secular’ communities. Do people join chess clubs out of interest and churches out of duty? Or is participation in either simply and equally driven by the human need to belong? Or does the sense of duty felt by a detachment of soldiers create a connection deeper than any chess club or church can provide?

In the end, the relativity of our question creates more problems than it solves. If this is a research question, it is plagued with severe study design challenges. What seems evident is that people who need religious orders join churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, and people who need chess clubs join chess clubs. Defining a certain ‘type’ or ‘grade’ of community is arbitrary to the extent that we humans (apparently) have a diverse range of needs and desires of association and tribe.

So, do religious communities provide ‘something’ that no other kind of community can provide? Probably, yes. But chess clubs probably provide ‘something else’ that religious communities cannot deliver. Perhaps the question should be less about the particular nature of religious belief and more about the dynamic and diverse nature of human community in general.

That said, I think there are still lessons that the rest of us can learn from religious communities — even if for no other reason than that religious traditions have been sculpting and experimenting with community for centuries. With Alain De Botton, I suspect that there is something profound (and, yes, likely primordial and evolutionary selective) in the idea of scheduling ‘sacred’ times to gather and in the practice of preparing and sharing meals together. Religion effectively constructs a bureaucratic hierarchy that coordinates the dreary logistics of gathering for the faithful. Taking an intentional approach to organizing live, in-person sharing of ideas and meals is the critical lesson that religion has been evolving over millennia. But can we genuinely commit to community without the gods?

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We are known by what we know

What do religions, comic books, fashion, politics, entertainment, academics, and sports all have in common?

They are shared. They are the platforms and lexicons of our conversations. They are ways of knowing and being known.

The sports commentator and the preacher offer interpretation. The foreign policy expert, the talking head, and the opinion-maker — they are all like the weather we live in: they provide the prompts, cues, and insights to narrate our discourse. The exploits of the hero and the controversies of the politician shape the substrate of our informal conversations.

What do religions, comic books, politics, entertainment, academics, and sports all have in common? They are languages. They are the domains where we achieve rank and status. They give us ways to know each other, opportunities to predict the future together, spaces to analyze the world collectively, and opportunities to demonstrate our expertise to one another.

They allow us to be known by what we know.

What do religions, comic books, fashion, politics, entertainment, academics, and sports all have in common? They provide the ground for what it means for a group of us to define ourselves as ‘us.’ It’s not they are all the same thing — but they all share something in common.

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