Thursday, September 12, 2013


Someone remarks casually that "it's hard not being the top dog," and I have a sudden torrent of thoughts to offer.

I think it is actually pretty easy not being the top dog. It can be problematic when people have radically different views of where some collaborative project is (or should be) headed, but even in the latter case I think it is easier to get things done with peer-to-peer conversation rather than command-and-control.

In my marriage, for example, nobody presides. This was true even when we were newlyweds (and were approaching our relationship even more naively than we still do). My wife and I talk about things, express opinions, come up against decisions that must be made quickly, and work things out (without making somebody "be in charge" of everything or have "the final say" in whatever we do individually or together). At some point, I suppose we could become incompatible: even if that happened and we went our separate ways (divorce), I would like to do so amicably rather than angrily. In the same way, if I am ever collaborating with other people in the workplace (or anywhere, really), I always want them to feel free to give honest input, and to walk away if at any point they are too uncomfortable with the way things are going (or some much better opportunity presents itself to them and they feel a real desire to take advantage of it).

The difficulty of leadership is that it really isn't such a good thing, when life is going well. Historically, the great leaders are the people who encounter some disaster and react against it powerfully (with some kind of communal support), unilaterally (without backing down)--and most importantly, successfully (they achieve something that the world recognizes in hindsight as success, e.g. victory in war, economic prosperity, survival in a savage wilderness). But life is not always throwing us into do-or-die situations (wherein we must all look to Napoleon and hope that this is Austerlitz and not Waterloo). We shouldn't deliberately put our backs to the wall and then look for somebody to play Julius Caesar (and "get the bad guys" at all cost by "being a great leader").

Ideally, we never have any need for leadership (the way it is commonly understood). Ideally, we never find our backs to the wall as we gamble everything on the success of some singular encounter with fortune (who giveth and taketh away without regard for persons: even "great leaders" can lose--at terrrible cost to themselves and their communities). Ideally, we don't make every decision an occasion for Caesar to throw the dice and cross the Rubicon. Never cross the Rubicon unless you really have to. If you really have to, then by all means be a leader--just as you might become a murderer to save your own life or the life of someone you love. But don't love leadership (or homicide) for its own sake. I am pretty sure it doesn't love you back; if it does, then history says that its love is really dangerous (as likely to kill you prematurely as to save you from present danger).

Ideally, instead of leadership we have peer-to-peer negotiation. Instead of noticing something bad in the world (e.g. people are dying in Syria!) and responding with leadership (e.g. bomb the crap out of Syria, stat! show the world that we mean business, that Caesar is burning his boats and preparing to take Britain at all costs!), we should respond with negotiation (e.g. how can we help refugees? is there anything we can do to encourage better behavior among enemies? maybe not all crises need to be solved with bombs and other tools of leadership). Leadership will always be with us (like death and other such things), but it need not be the only thing available when problems arise. We should actively cultivate alternatives to it (or alternative forms of it, if you like, but I mistrust the word too much at present to be interested in redeeming it).

No comments:

Post a Comment