Leadership That is Weak
Power in a Leadership Starved World
The Leader Who Starves The People
Many years ago I worked with a local community organization whose leader had systematically been running off or removing people that he saw as a threat to his authority. This organization operated within a regional network of other community groups like them. The authority structure of this network meant that the regional group could step in to address issues that members brought to them. In this case, members of the board who had not been run off asked the regional group to remove the person in leadership.
I worked with this group for two years following the removal of the organization’s leader. By concentrating power in this one man, the organization had become leadership starved. This means that the creativity of the members had been dampened. Participation, and subsequently, contributions by members had diminished. Recruitment of new members had been relegated to the leader. As a result, the members’ network of relationships within their community had lost focus. And, finally, membership had become for many, what are you doing for me rather than how can I contribute more.
On a Global Scale
The same philosophy of strong authoritarian leadership has grown over the past century. The egregious versions of this kind of leader – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin – have not persuaded others that this course is a bad one for a nation. Quite the opposite. It is a path to power and exploitation of the nation’s resources. There are also scores of companies that have found themselves in trouble because the executive leadership basically said, “We’ll make all the decisions.”
The global governmental response to the COVID-19, for example, took this tact. Any question of a government’s approach was met with censorship and cancellation. The anticipated result is that people will step back from criticism for fear of their livelihood or even their life being taken away.
These are signs of weak leadership in practice, not strong leadership. For they point to a strange occurrence in the modern world where governments and business no longer exist for the people or one’s customers, but the people for the organization. It is difficult to see this without a contrasting picture. The following section, taken from my book, Where Has Trust Gone?: Restoring Authority and Accountability in Organizations illustrates a vastly different societal culture.
A Society Against The State
A half-century ago French anthropologist Pierre Clastres wrote about his fieldwork among the native tribes of the Amazonian rain forest. In these tribes, he found societies quite different than ours. These societies were led by a chief. But the chief had no power. All the power resided with the people as a whole. What then was the chief’s role in this society? It was to be generous and to daily remind the people who they are.
Imagine electing a president, a governor, a mayor, members of Congress, or the state legislature with the understanding that they have no power to tax, to prosecute, to activate the National Guard to quell rioting, or to surveil the population. Imagine if the only power elected leaders had was to influence people to take responsibility for their lives and their communities. How different this would be from our time where our leaders have so little confidence in their ability to influence us that they must operate the government from a stance of disrespect towards those who elected them.
Clastres’ research was controversial because he exposed the fragmented nature of modern states.
“What is a primitive society? It is a stateless society. To speak of a stateless society is necessarily to name the other societies, which is to say societies with a state. … I wonder why stateless societies are stateless, and it seems to me that if primitive societies are stateless it’s because they are societies that reject the state, they are against the state. The absence of the state in primitive societies doesn’t reflect a lack, it isn’t because they are still in the infancy of humankind, and so are incomplete, or because they aren’t big enough, or aren’t fully grown-up, adult, it is truly because they refuse the state in the broadest sense, the state defined by its minimal figure which is the relationship based on power. By the same token, to speak of stateless societies or societies against the state is to talk about those with a state, so there is bound to be practically no transition at all, or one that is immediately possible.”
Clastres distinguished these tribes as primitive, not backward. His research countered the dominant view that civilizations had to have a governmental structure. His view was that a society did not require a state administration in order to be considered a civilization. He concluded that these tribes were not “societies without a state”, but “societies against a state.”
The importance of what Clastres identifies is important to understand for our self-awareness as modern people living in a modern age of institutions.
“… each one of us carries within himself, internalized like the believer’s faith, the certitude that society exists for the State. How, then, can one conceive of the very existence of primitive societies if not as the rejects of universal history, anachronistic relics of a remote stage that everywhere else has been transcended? Here one recognizes ethnocentrism’s other face, the complementary conviction that history is a one-way progression, that every society is condemned to enter into that history and pass through the stages which lead to savagery to civilization. … archaic societies are almost always classed negatively, under the heading of lack: societies without a State, societies without writing, societies without history. The classing of these societies on the economic plane appears to be of the same order: societies with a subsistence economy. If one means by this that primitive societies are unacquainted with a market economy to which surplus products flow, strictly speaking one says nothing. One is content to observe an additional lack and continues to use our own world as the reference point: those societies without a State, without writing, without history are also without a market.”
For many of the people with whom I’ve shared Clastres’ perspective, they have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that a civilization could exist without a state administration. This response is analogous to other perspectives related to organizational structure where the individual cannot grasp the idea of alignment. The situation is one where we are like fish in water, so deeply encompassed and compromised by the organizational structures of our time that we can’t see their impact upon us.
What are we to learn from Clastres’ perspective? Surely it isn’t that we should destroy federal, state, and local governments. These primitive societies are not anarchic. They are governed, just without having a state administrative apparatus to govern the affairs of the tribe.
Clastres’ perspective shows that for accountability to be effective, it requires a relationship with the people. Today, it isn’t just governmental institutions that lack a relationship with the people, but also many organizations. Few of us have a personal relationship with the organizations in our lives. For most of us, our relationships are based upon a contract, an agreement, an implied consent to fulfill certain obligations. We live in a fee-based society. We pay the fee and receive the benefit. For most of us, we are not investing for impact.
If there is a direct application to the organizational structures that we have today, we could look at the mayor of a town, the owner of a business, a corporate CEO, or the president of a nation as responsible for the advancement and preservation of the relationship between authority and accountability. Of course, this means the role of the leader changes. For now, in some clearly defined way, all people within the organization or who are served by it are considered equal.
We should recognize that in these primitive cultures, the people are one. They speak as one. The tribe exists as one. Therefore, the chief is a servant to the whole of the tribe. His job is to tell the story which reminds them why they exist as they do.
It could be said that in these tribal societies, they are centered in their relationships with one another. There is no accountability without a direct relationship between those who govern and those governed. Relationships of accountability validate authority. Without authority, there is no order, only chaos.
From Leadership Starved to Leader-rich
We live in a leadership-starved world where a direct connection between the individual and the organization or the government is missing. Authoritarian leadership structures are weak ones. They are Societies Against The People, borrowing from Clastres perspective. As a result, the people exist in isolation from one another and the institutions of society.
There exists in every organization, every nation, region, or society a fundamental social structure. It exists apart from the organization or the state itself. I call this “a persistent, residual culture of relationships.” As a network, it persists because it resides in a shared culture of values. This culture is a natural outgrowth of human interaction within the social environment of a community or at work. And this is different than what is commonly understood as a corporate culture.
A leader-rich environment is one where the people freely participate in the life of the community and contribute in ways to make it a better, more harmonious, a more prosperous one. As a result, genuine leadership is not measured by the ego-satisfaction of the person in charge, but rather by the extent that leadership has been developed in others.