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My followership problem

June 14, 2012

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.

Categories: musing
  1. barryrsmith
    June 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

    I’m glad I live in a society where corruption hasn\’t permeated the system from the top all the way down to my own level.

    I agree that there are systematic causes for the ”followership problem”, like our particular system and modern media, but think people’s attitudes might be different as well. I believe developing the ability to accept and hold a paradoxical situation in your mind and develop a nuanced point of view that incorporates it is one of the main things to get out of a college education. I’m afraid from my experience that large numbers of college graduates are not developing anything of the sort.


  2. max
    June 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I’m not sure I buy this (like most glib nonsense coming out of Brooks). Isn’t it true that people have always hated politicians and despaired about the future? The monuments in DC weren’t built while those people were alive.

    Plenty of people like Obama and plenty of people hated FDR with a passion.


    • Dan L
      June 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. Brooks is the master of the pseudo-profound glib bullshit essay. (To be more precise, he’s all bull and no cow, as wonderfully explained in the famous essay http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~lipoff/miscellaneous/exams.html.) You can’t really refute a Brooks essay because it’s too squishy to actually mean anything. I was about to try, but I just re-read the column and realized that there is nothing in it that can actually be disputed. But imho the premise of the column is an ipso facto argument that there is an underlying philosophical difference between modern monuments and old ones. I doubt many noticed this difference before reading this column, because the difference probably doesn’t exist outside Brooks’s mind.

      And Max, forget FDR. WE certainly recognize Lincoln’s righteous authority, but to put it lightly, his authority was not so widely accepted in his day (and even for decades afterward). But honestly, I can’t say for sure that that these observations have any relevance to Brooks’s thesis. See above paragraph for why.


  3. Matt Stoller
    June 14, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    “Obama has not impressed, but I’d also have to admit he hasn’t been given that many opportunities to.”

    Obama had the chance to rebuild the entire financial system when he was the monopoly provider of capital. This whole post is absurdly elitist.


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