October 25, 2018

You Can Go Your Own Way

In a professional development course on leadership once, a very high profile Australian speaker said that ‘having followers’ was the most important aspect of leadership. For the context, he was probably spot on as the course was about how to motivate others, inspire them, be charismatic and grab attention. But it got me thinking about how that all sounded like ‘popularity’ rather than leadership.

If “followers” is the benchmark for leaders, then we are doomed to the appetites of our audience, engineered at attention seeking click-bait. The “9-best words that the Kardashians invented” might be a popular piece of online real estate – it probably doesn’t translate to ‘leadership’… not in the way that I would like to think about it anyway.

Leadership is an interesting social phenomenon. In caves, and in companies, humans organise themselves around an Alpha-human who holds some kind of knowledge or experience that can direct the group successfully. Leaders who are really successful have an ability to tap into all kinds of knowledge that would otherwise be siloed in group members, and then consolidate that collective knowledge, ensuring that the group is smarter, together.

The leader has the responsibility to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular decisions.   

Making the best decision, compared to making a popular decision, is a quandary as old as time – and with the parliamentary musical chairs relating to our Prime Ministerial office, it is an important one today.

In terms of political leadership, where the majority decides the direction – it seems that popularity is more important. Love me a #ScoMo BUT he has neither the followers nor the influence that #Kardashian #Tswift or #Belieber carries.

How could anyone trying to make ‘good’ decisions, grab the attention of enough followers for long enough to perform any actual governance when Justin Beiber is getting another tattoo at the same time as Kim and Taylor are having a spat on twitter?

And so, I think a slightly more robust definition of leadership is needed. We can vie for attention or debate opinions but knowledge is only known when there is evidence. Evidence tells us whether an idea is a good idea or a bad idea. Sometimes we get this evidence before we act on an idea and sometimes it comes later in terms of a lesson learned.

‘Following’ needs to be something we deliberately do then. The premise of democracy is about choice and representation. ‘Following’ shouldn’t be enough in and of itself to create leaders. Popularity shouldn’t be required to hold power. Churchill promised nothing but sacrifice when he inspired the Allies in WW2. JFK held the imagination of the nation when he asked what people could do for their country.

These days, it seems the hashtags that have our attention slowly become the agenda too.

There is another kind of leadership, thought leadership. Thought leaders ought not care about followers, their responsibility is to knowledge. Being right, not being popular. Let’s hope there are some of them behind the scenes in the public service to balance the people behind the screens who seem to undermine independent thought.

We’ll finish with a list of thought leaders who had no followers in their time but who, in being right, lead us to much deeper knowledge and deeper thinking.

  1. Semmelweis – the Swiss physician (Edit: He was actually Hungarian but was practicising in a Swiss hospital at the time – Ed) who had the insane idea that doctors should wash their hands in between the autopsy and the maternity rooms. He was committed to an insane asylum, became an alcoholic because of it and died of the disease his idea would have eradicated.
  2.  Galilleo – The Italian polymath had the crazy notion that the earth might move around the sun. He was prosecuted by the Inquisition and scolded as ‘absurd, foolish and found to be vehemently heretical’ and was placed under house arrest and excommunicated before dying.
  3. Meitner – one of my favourites. Her work led to the accomplishment of nuclear fission (atom splitting to generate energy). People agreed with her thinking but not with – her. Why not? 1. Female; 2. Jewish in Nazi Europe. Her co-researcher and nephew went on to win the Nobel prize for their work, alone.

So, give yourself permission to un-follow the leader, and to think like no one is watching.