essays, Personal writing

Leadership as illusion

It used to feel imperative to me that I be a leader. I used to think there were people in life that were followers, and people that were leaders, and that it was better to be the latter than the former.

FL-Ready-Leadership-Narrative-2400-1Mostly, I think this vision was bound up in notions of masculinity for me. I associated leadership with a sense of pushing myself into situations, then commanding them, and I thought that if I didn’t do this, it meant I was somehow weak, not a man. I viewed leadership as an occasion for self-assertion, a masking of insecurities that rendered one the kind of person others would follow.

I made attempts to lead in this way, and they never worked out. Pushing myself into a situation or role, I might succeed in getting others to follow me for a while, but what would happen in the end is that my drive itself would sputter out; I would realize I was acting without integrity, and either I would sabotage myself, or I would consciously quit my position or disavow what I had done.

Giving up after a period of trying this, I decided that I was simply a follower, not a leader, and I got into the practice of following the many things that arose to be followed: feelings, impulses, my ideas, the ideas of others, my intuitions. Doing this at length, I wrote books, made physical moves, applied to and was accepted by graduate schools, got jobs, found and proposed to my fiancé. Each of these moves seemed to me to arise with the quality of predestination, and all I did was simply follow the sign: there was a total absence of any pretension to leadership.

LCD panel with light rays.In my new state, it has been quite the surprise to me to begin to receive the feedback that I am a leader. More than a few times, people have reached out to me about things I’ve written on this blog and said that I’ve inspired them, that something I’ve written has enabled them to make a move in their lives they were waiting on, but had lacked the courage to make. That is, these people have branded me as the leader whom they followed.

All this has led me to revise my earlier thinking on leadership: I no longer think a leader is someone who asserts themselves in a situation, acting from their own will. Instead, I think a leader is merely another version of a follower, like any of us; the only difference is that the leader is following something others cannot see. As a more blunt way of putting this, leadership is an illusion.

To give a practical example of what I’m talking about, look at some of the great nonviolent leaders throughout history, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Were these people leaders? Of course, to those who followed them. But were they themselves (Dr. King, Gandhi, et al) also simply following something? Again, of course: they were following something so large that others could not see it, a vision of a future to which they fully and nakedly submitted.

5-ways-to-develop-your-intuition1So perhaps another way of putting this is that a leader is a special kind of seer, and a believer: they submit to something, first because they can clearly see it, and second because they possess the power to believe in it even when contradicted by present reality. These are no doubt gifts: however, they are the gifts of a humble supplicant, not those of the kind of masculine, adrenaline-oriented leadership that I had formerly categorized as such. A leader is a follower; they are merely following something their followers cannot see, and for those followers, the leader becomes the vessel of grand vision.

4 thoughts on “Leadership as illusion”

  1. I very much like this blog but I think you are missing an important element of leadership. Leadership is not only the ability to have a dream, as in your example with Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and other ‘non-violent’ leaders; it  also requires the ability manifest that dream by making the dream accessible to followers. 
    In the Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell gives the classic example of the second Rider, who rode the exact same night as Paul Revere, with the exact same message, yet history has no memory or mention of this Rider.  After 100% of the focus group attendees said they were not interested in iPod v1.0, Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they don’t know”. 
    I believe that a true leader must be capable of enabling others to see and feel their dreams, thus becoming a part of the manifestation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this, and not just for the content but as usual, the quality of writing is refreshing. Some scholarly work I read can have it’s ideas so bogged down with rhetoric and clever sounding language, it frankly makes it difficult to understand what is being said. But that is more an aside. I studied leadership as you know, and what I can say is that experience only gave me the firm impression that others don’t understand leadership. But this writing is how people should understand it. I often find myself reciting to myself, in situations related to my current goals, “Those who want to lead, first must learn to follow.” Be the best follower you can be. The popular idea surrounding leadership in shelf help books today is that of the servant leader. There is a book titles similarly that gets thrown around all the time about it. And while it is good, I feel it misses the mark being too narrowly focused. Jackson, I think you are right. Leadership is about following a grander plan, and having others who see the, I’ll say “light” within you, follow you in turn. The next part of being a leader in such a position is helping others to see that light and direction for themselves. You can serve them yes. But I’ve always preferred another identified leadership method called transformational leadership. This involves seeing or identifying those obstacles in others way, that may prevent them from being effective in their role with you. By helping those who follow you be successful in their efforts with you, you act as the ultimate leader by serving, and transforming them into powerful entities themselves. Leadership is service, and it is focus towards something greater. As I think of it, I believe the life of Jesus Christ is an excellent example of this as recorded in the biblical text, regardless of how anyone feels about it. He took a few young fishermen and trained them by example and instruction, and they each went out into the world and changed it dramatically. There’s something to the method I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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