In this era of multiple crises and global threats, I am increasingly uneasy with the call for leadership. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, and other iconic figures are held up as examples of true leaders: They offered charisma, vision and strength enough to pioneer new eras of thought. The lack of such characters now, we are told, suggests a vacuum in our capacity to generate the old-school kind of hope for the future that these courageous individuals embodied.
So where are the leaders of today? This is the question plaintively asked of today’s activists, scientists, politicians, and keepers of the moral fabric.
I would like a moment to call bullshit. This thinking about leadership is not useful. There is no such thing as an isolated individual—we are all interdependent. Period.
Our evolution is only in our mutual contribution and learning. Mutual leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency.
Is there a part of any of us that we can point to and truly say, “that is me—untouched or influenced by any of my history, my culture, education, family, religion, social life…”? Unlikely. Perhaps, instead, leadership is a product of the context, combined with other influences that seem to culminate in crowning an individual with leadership duties. When we look through the lens of interdependency, it is impossible to separate individuals from their contexts of influence and experience. This blurs the ‘hero’s story.’ Leadership, then, can better be attributed to the town or village that nourished a person than to that person’s individual qualities.
In ecological terms we can attribute the health and vitality of the whale to the ocean not only to the whale, and we can attribute the strength of the lion to the jungle (or savannah) not only to the lion. The environment in which the alchemy of collective need is met with a corresponding alchemical combination of possibility produces new paths to follow. In the combination of community and individual, hardship and support, isolation and belonging, past and future, vision and discipline, there can arise a perfect storm that produces what we have, in the past, called leaders.
The very word “leadership” has become cringe worthy. It reeks of colonialism and lopsided history-book listings of individuals successful in taking, making, and claiming. Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders. Our fatal flaw may be the idea that an individual or institution can single-handedly penetrate new frontiers of possibility.
This is an obsolete but undead dream of heroes and rescuers pioneering innovations. Lightning bolts of imagination and strength, these so-called leaders are presented as utterly independent of their histories; as though they had fallen from the sky. The haunting seeps into what we call ambition, fueled by our wanting to be important and successful.
There are scissors somewhere that slice the ambitious from their comprehension of the mutuality we all inevitably live within. The mutuality is where the imagination is brewing, where the strength is made, where the integrity of the context lies. Can we extract a stand-out entity from that mutuality and call it a break-away? Isn’t the break-away a product of the mutuality? How can “leaders” exist without all the relationships that have culminated and fermented to make them? Should we not point to those mutualities as heroic?
So I don’t want a leader. I am sick of heroes. I look back at how we got where we are now and I wonder what kind of systemic imbalances have been created by the thinking that longs to canonize leaders. What is a leader in a complex system anyway? What is the ecology of leadership?
I think there isn’t one. When we look to nature for models, we find that there is not an ecology that would accommodate the existing model of leadership. Think of trees in a forest. How did the “leaders” get so tall? Were they extra courageous or charismatic?
The ecological response would observe that the other organisms mutually contributed to that growth. The ”‘king of the jungle” is human nonsense that understands nothing of the lion’s relationships in the ever-changing natural order of the many species that extend into the pride of lions. The alpha dog is seen as the “leader of the pack,” presuming that the pack ends with the grouping of dogs, which it does not. The human construct of leadership is projected onto the pack by us who are in the habit of identifying that pattern. Dogs have no such framing. Pack members are in communication and mutual learning with each other and the wider surroundings, responding to information that is funneled through the “alpha” but generated through the pack. This makes the “relationship of dominance” perceived, contextual, and not fixed. What we see as deference is a collaborative, communicational relationship that can be disrupted if the “leader” or the “followers” reorganize the communication.
In fact, I think our notions of leadership are toxic to the ecology of communication and collaboration in a social system. How can there be real communication when there is deference to a leader? This imbalance creates a hold-back of contribution and interaction. Look now at the fascination with celebrity that has infected the globe. The imbalance in the possibility for communication when one individual is placed above others in this way effectively destroys the possibility of true cooperation and mutual learning.
Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong… willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories. That cannot happen if one person is the know-it-all. Even if that person has perfect “leadership skills”—they still disrupt the ecology with individualism. “Leadership” often creates competition, ambition, greed and, on the flip side, fosters deference, hopelessness, apathy, and blame.
We may learn more about leadership if we study it as an entrustment of context, and not as a twinkle bestowed upon a few select individuals from the heavens above. To trust the context requires a second order shift in purposing our agendas. Instead of being activists for this or that cause, we need to tend to the contextual capacity for those changes we would like to see.
The notion of the individual entity having agency is confused by a paradox. The confusion lies with the idea of individuation. The entity (organism, person, or organization) is bound to its unique perspective or epistemology, and in that sense is identifiable as a separate source of responsibility. But, there is no aspect of that entity that is uninfluenced, uninformed, or unbound to the larger contextual interactions. On closer examination we begin to see that agency is diffused into the larger contextual processes that are shared by the entire community. Agency is a paradoxical product of mutual learning within and between people, nature, and culture.
Leadership does not reside in a person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community. So leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual. The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then, most importantly, stand back. Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it’s a zone of interrelational process. Step in, step out.
Maybe there was a time when these notions of leadership were useful—but not any more. This global whirl of interrelations and interlocked histories and futures is not waiting for leaders… it’s waiting for the courage to trust each other and to step carefully into the “intentional community » of the 7 billion people we share the commune of life with. This is our tribe. Just the 7 billion of us… and the animals, plants and micro-organisms. Those who came before, and those who will follow. That’s all.
So, am I saying that there is no room for teachers? That there is no room for the expert? No. But a good teacher, and a real expert, knows that they are in a process of learning themselves. They are not leaders. They are not making the seeds grow… They are fertilizer, tending to the soil.
By definition, leadership is needed when something has to be done that has never been done before. Meeting unknown circumstances requires rapid and spontaneous learning. In the case of today’s leadership needs, that learning is mutual.
This is an edited excerpt from Nora Bateson’s Small Arc of Larger Circles, published by Triarchy Press, UK.