The criticism. Against the myth of leadership (and in praise of following)

Leadership is one of the sacred words of the religion of the new 21st century capitalism. The reflection, and above all, the practice of the phenomena now called “leadership” are actually very old. It is not difficult to find in the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to Max Weber, ideas and even real theories on the creation and management of leaders and their decline. Economic science has not dealt with it much, because it has always been more interested in markets and individual rational actions than in organizations and complex collective phenomena, although some great economists (Vilfredo Pareto, for example) have written very beautiful pages on the ideologies that they produce leaders and then eliminate them. Sociology and management have dealt with it more, because, in essence, leadership theories are variants and (less sophisticated) developments of the theories of authority and the exercise of power in human groups, including businesses: the classics topics in the social sciences.

With the new millennium, however, something very important has changed around leadership. Courses on how to become a leader, how to recognize the “traits” of the leader, how a leader can condition a work group to generate change, and much more, have grown at a high and continuous pace, until they occupy the departments of all economic and social sciences, engineering, philosophy and even theology. An even more recent, but no less worrying, data is the expansion of leadership training courses in civil society organizations and communities, even in convents and spiritual movements, in the organisms of the Churches, where superiors and parish priests are starting to self- define yourself using the new words of leadership. In advertising for leadership courses business school we read that the course is aimed at “managers and executives with experience and anyone who aspires to leadership positions or who is required to be a leader”. And if you browse through the many dedicated manuals, the definitions are all similar: leadership is the ability to influence a particular person (the leader) on the employees (followers). The followers are the followers of the leader, pushed by the leader’s charisma – charisma is a word used and abused – to work in a group where they are directed and guided by him. So, in a nutshell: leadership is understood as the ability of a leader to influence one or more people. Thus, words such as managers, managers, office managers, coordinators have now become old and outdated, linked to too banal capitalism. Leaders, unlike old managers, have charisma, charm, attractiveness, persuasion and seduction.

A first question: where did the need to transform managers into leaders arise? Where did this irresistible urge to give a charismatic inspiration to office managers or coordinators come from? Certainly capitalism has changed, it has come out (or is coming out) of factories and assembly lines, and today getting the consent and obedience (another old word) of the workers has become more difficult. Furthermore, the culture of post-modernity creates post-patriarchal young people, therefore less accustomed and less prepared to the virtues of obedience from superiors, more sensitive to the values ​​of freedom, equality, assent and contract. The old enterprises of the twentieth century were born also and above all because of the hierarchy it cost less individual contracts: negotiating every action with each worker requires an enormous amount of time and resources; Hence, hiring a person within a large employment contract, where the individual tasks are largely entrusted to the hierarchy, makes the organization faster and more efficient. But for the hierarchy to work, there is a need for employees who value it, who consider it good, who share it. Thus, with the arrival of the generation of workers of the new millennium, the figure of the leader is born: this does not need the hierarchy (it is said) to be able to make the organization work, because the consent and adhesion of its collaborators arise from the his charisma, his ability to convince, his persuasion, his authority. Leadership appears more post-modern, egalitarian, non-hierarchical and even fraternal compared to the old organizational theories of the twentieth century, certainly more ethical and respectful of everyone’s dignity. But is it really so?

The writer is convinced of the opposite, that is, that the theories of leadership are much more hierarchical than those of the Fordist-Taylorist factory – and more male-dominated. The real difference is narrative in nature: they are told as post-hierarchical theories and practices without being. Because? The many and diverse leadership theories have one decisive fact in common: they divide the world into leaders and followers. Some people, for the most diverse reasons (personality, vocation, talents, role etc…) are leaders; others, and most of them, are followers, that is, members or workers who freely accept to be influenced, seduced, convinced by their leader, and who are also happy with this influence they freely undergo. Of course, even a follower of today can become a leader tomorrow, or while he is a follower of a leader in office A he can be a leader in office B where he will have other followers who in turn will have to seduce and capture with his charisma. And so on, endlessly. But at this point let’s try to ask ourselves: would we like to live in such a world? Working in offices, departments, companies where our manager is our leader? Probably there is simply to be afraid of it. Because it is a much more illiberal society than the old one of the twentieth century. It is not the first time that the profound limits of leadership are highlighted. In fact, in recent years, new adjectives have emerged: relational, community, participatory leadership, even of communion. But, it should be understood, the problem does not concern the adjective: it directly affects the noun: leadership. And there is more. Economic theory teaches us that some of the most important social phenomena are explained by mechanisms of adverse selection: unwittingly, institutions end up in certain contexts to select the worst people. In other words: who are you applying for a course to become a leader? Economic theory tells us that it is very likely that “those who aspire to become leaders” are the people least suited to “lead” working groups, because loving the “job” of the leader and being a good leader are absolutely not the same thing. . Let us think of political leadership: in all countries the best politicians have emerged and emerge during the great crises, when there are no “schools for politicians”; when being a politician becomes a profession, associated with power and money, schools of politics generally generate poor politicians.

Leadership theories are heavily influenced by the model of the charismatic leader. The charismatic leader par excellence, in the Western tradition, is the prophet, that is, someone who is freely followed for their intrinsic authority. Unfortunately, the theorists of leadership do not know that the prophets (certainly the biblical ones) have never considered themselves leaders. The main prophets of the Bible (from Moses to Jeremiah) did not feel they were leaders, nor did they want to become one. The very thought of having to drive someone terrified them. They are chosen among the discarded, the last, they are also stutterers and disabled but capable of to listen and above all of to follow a voice. To tell us that those who have guided some process of change well in life have been able to do it because first they had learned to follow a voice, first they had learned to follow. Prophets are men and women of failure, whereas leadership is instead presented as a way to reach the other magic word of our capitalism: success, being. winning. The men of success, followed and flattered, were the false prophets who often came out of the “prophetic schools” that churned out multitudes of prophets by trade and forprofit charlatans.

The first law that the great biblical wisdom has left us in fact reads: “Be wary of those who are candidates to become a prophet, because they are almost always a false prophet”, or, we would say today, simply a narcissist. History and real life then tell us that he becomes a “leader” by simply doing his job, doing something else, and then one day maybe someone imitates us and thanks us, and we don’t even notice it. But the day someone feels himself a leader and begins to behave as such, people and groups get sick, many individual and collective neuroses are produced. And when communities wanted to produce at home, their leaders selected too many people unable to do that, even when they were motivated by the best of intentions. Simply because leaders are not formed, and if you try to train them you create something strange and often dangerous. So imagining leadership courses for young people is extremely dangerous. But they multiply, because leadership schools attract the many who wish to be leaders and delude themselves that they can buy the fulfillment of this desire on the market. Different speech would be courses of “leadership” for those who do find already to play a coordinating and guiding role, but they should be very different from those in circulation today. They should help to reduce the damage that “leaders” produce in their groups, to train themselves in the deponent virtues, meekness and humility, to learn to follow their colleagues.

Leaders have a necessary and vital need for followers: but who decides to be Robin in a world where only the moral qualities of Batman are exalted? Where is that then freedom so much heralded by these theories? The ideal workplace is that of a community of people where everyone simply plays the part of him in a cooperative game, a team where everyone follows all the others in reciprocity, in the equal dignity of tasks. This is an adult world, where yes orient the work and with the people we talk. If someone has to carry out coordination, governance and responsibility functions at a certain moment, he will simply be doing his job as I do mine: he will not have to lead anyone, he will not have to influence anyone, he will only have to do his necessary part in the one collective game. And if he’s the leader, we call it manipulation. Finally, it is truly surprising that the Christian world is attracted to leadership theories today, when it was born of Someone who founded everything on following, and who one day said: “Do not be called guides, because there is only one guide” (Mt 23:10).

We certainly need change agents and actors, always, especially in a time of great change like ours. Above all, we need people who take responsibility for their choices. We have a vital need especially when our businesses and communities are stationary and static. These change makers they will hardly come from leadership schools: they will only be able to emerge from mestizo communities and businesses that will resume walking along the streets, that will resume their journey along the dusty streets of the cities and even more of the suburbs. There the new leaders await us, who will be agents of change precisely because they will not feel like the new leaders. And they will be together, all different and all the same, in the reciprocity of the following.

The criticism. Against the myth of leadership (and in praise of following)