My followership problem
David Brooks wrote an interesting and provocative column recently in the New York Times about leadership and followership, claiming our country has forgotten how to follow. First he talks about how we dismiss leaders, focusing only on the victims:
We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.
Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.
I have to admit, I agree with him here. It’s hard for me to swallow the phrase, “immeasurably superior to ourselves” when I think about the role models we have today in politics and elsewhere. I think it’s smart that he’s keeping this stuff abstract, because any given example would seem kind of embarrassing.
He then goes on to make what I think is a great point:
But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.
This idea of legitimacy of power is key. The truth is, the last time I felt myself in the presence of legitimate power was when Obama was sworn in. Ever since then I’ve been pretty much despairing, although there have been moments of relief and hope, like when Occupy started. But overall, yes, I have become a major skeptic of authority.
But I’d argue, nobody wants to feel this way. We all want there to be legitimate authority, we want to stop worrying about the economy, or whatever, and get to work and think about nothing more complicated than our personal careers, or our kids, or our haircuts, knowing that there are honest and reasonable stewards doing their job in the background. But the environment is not conducive to such blissful ignorance right now. Not in finance, not in economics, and not in government.
I’m pretty sure it’s not our attitudes here that are the problem, although they may take some time to adjust if things spontaneously improved. I think it’s the system itself, combined with modernity.
The system has become too dysfunctional for leaders to lead well. Obama has not impressed, but I’d also have to admit he hasn’t been given that many opportunities to. There’s a reason people are hating on politicians these days, and when they again fail to come to agreement on the debt ceiling it’s not going to be getting any better.
Modernity has played its part too. One of the reasons it’s harder to glorify people nowadays is that we simply know too much about them. It’s kind of in the “everybody poops” category – and that’s not going away.
I think we need a new way of appreciating just authority, if and when it comes up (i.e. if we can somehow improve our dysfunctional system). Namely, we need to appreciate people are flawed and sometimes greedy or mean, but mostly trying their best, and set up systems that don’t tempt them to be downright corrupt. Then we need to trust just as much in our systems as the leaders we set up in those systems, and see if it can work.