I guess there’s no need to engage in any further exegesis concerning the latest Black Swans on the political front, domestically and globally. But I’ve been surprised that the leadership literati (let’s call them the leaderati) haven’t been talking about what this all means for leadership thinking. Seems to me it means a whole lot.
So what does leaderati include? Leadership and management educators, academics, researchers, gurus, consultants, trainers, assessors, authors (yep, includes me unfortunately too) even real leaders, to the extent that they lower themselves in such frivolous pursuits. Essentially it’s the people who either go to Davos or TED talks, or who would like to either get an invitation, or be seen in the audience. You get the idea.
The way I see it is that the leaderati have been following what I call an aspirational model of leadership. They talk about what leadership should be and focus on helping potential and actual leaders to conform to the model. The end is, hopefully, a better world for both leaders and followers.
But the new model is diametrically opposed. I call it the real-nature model of leadership. It doesn’t start with ends but rather with leaders and leadership right now. It accepts that most leaders are fundamentally greedy, corrupt, venal and selfish and takes things from there.
Aspirational leadership is altruistic and working for the whole of humanity. It aims for a win-win, which it thinks is eminently possible. Real-nature leadership is fundamentally selfish, just like most human leaders. It is working on behalf of the leader’s tribe, and is predicated on a zero-sum model. So it aims to win because otherwise is to lose.
All well and good, or not, as the case might be. We all know that there are goodies and baddies. But the fascinating thing about all this is that the huddled masses have opted for the real-nature model which should, on the face of it, be antithetical to their interests. But nope, instead, they have embraced it, hook, line and sinker.
And as we have seen it’s quite easy for said masses to be in a majority, even if it’s an electoral rather than an absolute majority. So the real-nature model could well be the next big trend. But that isn’t an original idea either.
The masses want their leaders to be selfish so that they can be sure that the goodies created by the society of which they are a part go to them and their tribe, not to other tribes, who ipso facto are all enemies.
But modern leadership approaches want to share these goodies with other tribes, which impoverishes the masses in the traditional tribe, at least in their view. Then those same leadership gurus broadcast this very same, terrible message globally to the elites in soirees at all the maxi and mini Davoses scattered around the world, thus exacerbating the inequality they have already caused. Not fair!
The leaderati and the leadership elites that subscribe to the aspirational thesis thus function, from the perspective of the masses, as instruments of their economic oppression, just a more rarefied and effete version than that employed by the feudal landlords of yore. The very altruism of modern leadership is a way of depriving the masses of their just rewards, or so the masses feel.
But the leaderati not only don’t get it; they train existing and future leaders to conduct the same form of what the masses see as legalized theft, thus perpetuating their poverty.
Immigrants are a key part of the masses these days, especially in the US. And the leaderati, by and large, have missed that boat too.
Full disclosure – I’m an immigrant. And I am totally in favor of immigration, would even like it to be bigger and especially to allow more refugees.
My wife is an immigrant too. She’s the opposite. She doesn’t see why aliens should be allowed to stay if they came illegally; why should they be favored in a way she wasn’t? They should follow the rules, just like she did.
And many immigrants from developing countries accept the real-nature approach to leadership as the only honest one. They know that leaders (the ones they’ve seen, anyway) are usually cruel, evil and venal. Their fear is that apparently aspirational leaders are just using altruism as a cover for their true real-nature leadership aims.
Here’s the takeaway. It’s the deafening silence of the leaderati in the face of all of this. It’s clear that it’s on one side of the divide and the masses are on the other.
It’s a commonplace that the leaderati totally missed the Trump phenomenon. But they also seem to have missed the implications for leadership. That is, that aspirational leadership is in deep trouble right now.
What do you tell aspiring students of leadership now? How about up-and-coming leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors? Grizzled practitioners even? If we keep on with the aspirational meme, it’s clearly not credible, as well as not being effective.
But if we go with the real-nature push, most of the leaderati are going to choke on their organic Wheaties. What can we tell future leaders that is both realistic and credible and yet doesn't foster a new global Hunger Games race to the bottom?
What’s tough about it is that the new choice is between Social Darwinism, which so far is in the ascendant, and humanism, which seems to be going the way of the dodo. So the challenge isn’t only to the leadership class in politics and the private sector, but in everything including nonprofits, charities, religion and the rest.
We urgently need a new synthesis. There’s going to have to be an awful lot of new stories made up across a wide swathe of human thinking for us all to cover the bases for the upcoming generations and their masses in a way that brings the leaderati and them together again.
Of course you could just ignore the real-nature leadership approach and try to get on with life. But is that the right thing when 50% of the population thinks otherwise? What will that anti-elite think of them? Out of touch? Fuddy-duddies? Senile even?
It seems to me that the current leadership canon has got to get revised, in a pretty big way. There’s a new opus, magnum or minimus, with a cogent theory waiting to be written here. But I can’t see anyone on the horizon currently that is capable of writing it. At least not anyone from the aspirationalists.
If that’s the case, nature abhors a vacuum, so they say. So it’s likely that the real-nature types are going to do it for us all anyway. God forbid, they might even do a good job. Now wouldn’t that be a trick?
Real-naturists sporting a cogent, powerful, emotionally-resonant story that is so attractive it brings in even more stalwarts and converts. A new religion of real-nature leadership rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of aspirationalism.
Don’t laugh. It could happen. Soon.