In his novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami introduces a character called Aka. He is an aspiring educator, someone training company employees. Aka declares the following:
“One thing I learned from working in a company was that the majority of people in the world have no problem following orders. They’re actually happy to be told what to do. They might complain, but that’s how they really feel. They just grumble out of habit. If you told them to think for themselves, and make their own decisions and take responsibility for them, they’d be clueless.”
Tsukuru, Aka’s colleague, is appalled by the cynicism of his friend’s view of humanity.
But maybe – just maybe – Aka is right. Perhaps most people really do want simply to follow orders; they don’t want to think for themselves. And if Aka’s view of the world is correct, what are the implications?
In a wealthy society replete with opportunity, perhaps there are few sadder sights than a well-educated 50-year-old still in employment, still reporting to a boss, still working a five-day week, still fearful of stepping out of line and still dependent on the beneficence of others.
Employment is fine at a young age. But its purpose should be to educate its subjects to grow out of the need for it.
In today’s economy, the main aim of employment should be to serve as a training ground in self-reliance, self-responsibility and self-employment. By the age of 40, no employee should have any further need of employment. Rather in the way that parents bring up their children to grow out of childhood and to become self-reliant adults, so employment should develop employees to rid themselves of a life of deference and dependency and to start exercising a sense of their own agency.
Yet countless individuals find themselves in organisations where they are led and where they expect to be led. It is a form of learned helplessness.
The curse of followership
The desire to be led by someone is as peculiar as it is problematic. As a child, we may want to be brought up, taught, encouraged and liberated. As an adult, we may be in need of friendship, companionship, understanding or love. But leadership? Where does this come from? What kind of neurosis engenders this desire?
The sweep of history describes a steady movement from reliance upon heroes (witchdoctors, warriors, monarchs) to rationality (reliance upon reason, independence of mind, experimental evidence). And yet, there seems to be a residual, possibly biological, need – particularly amongst men of a certain ilk – for hierarchy, authority figures and heroism. They want to be led, to be dependent, to follow. They expect and accept that their obedience is required.
If the 20th century had just one lesson to teach us all, it is the perils of placing our trust in “visionary leaders” and ideologues. Remember just which “visionary leaders” emerged: Stalin, Hitler, Mao. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, reflecting on the events of the century and being reminded by a colleague that eggs have to be broken to make omelettes, responded by saying, “Some omelette! Some eggs!”
The last century was marked by followership – zealots, Bolsheviks, fascists, Leninists, Maoists, Nazis and, more recently, Islamists – all clothing themselves in various kinds of uniforms, flying flags and parroting cod philosophies. Will the 21st century be any different? Or will we continue to produce what author Bernard Levin used to call “single issue fanatics” in even greater numbers?