Let's kill leadership

We are conditioned to be led by others, says Jules Goddard. That’s dangerous. We should learn independence


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?

Only because we have become acculturated to living in a managerial society are we so accepting of busybodies, regulators and thought police

The totalitarian impulse

Collectivism is the name we give to the ideology that is more fearful of freedom than servitude, more comfortable with solidarity than diversity, more censorious of curiosity than compliance and more driven by fear than courage. Only because we have become acculturated to living in a managerial society are we so accepting of busybodies, regulators and thought police.

Over the last 100 years, there has been a huge increase in the numbers of managers. During the 20th century, Britain increased the size of its managerial class sevenfold. In today’s Chinese army, one-third are officers and a further third are non-commissioned officers. The talk in the modern organisation is all about personal development, the next promotion, succession planning, staff mobility, job incentives, advancement and so on. Soon there will be an insufficient number of subordinates to keep these bosses and leaders occupied.

The acquis communitaire, the law-book of the European community, now runs to 170,000 pages of statutes. Writer Matt Ridley has reported on the case of a British chemical manufacturer seeking to develop and market a herbicide for safely tackling black-grass, an increasingly problematic weed. To its consternation, the firm discovered that it would have to comply with between 15,000 and 40,000 pages of regulations and scientific guidance.

What has happened to European civilisation to render us so ineffectual, so meek and so fatalistic in the face of such bureaucratic meddling and autocratic over-reach? Perhaps a life of subservience at work has created a society that has lost the pride and self-belief required to confront such smothering regulation. One day we will look back on employment with the same degree of embarrassment and shame that we do today on indentured servitude. Where is William Wilberforce or Tom Paine now we need them?

When socialism collapsed in the Soviet Union, one would have thought, or hoped, that the values that had sustained it for 70 years – the extinction of individualism, the subservience to a self-elected elite, the plethora of pettifogging rules – would have perished with it. But 30 years later, we find these same values being adopted by large organisations, both private and public, across the world.

Inequalities of power

Modern societies rely too much on employment to provide life-long work for their citizens. Perhaps we should not be surprised. We educate our young principally to find employment. Very few schools and very few teachers see the purpose of education as creating jobs rather than filling them. We are brought up to rely on others to provide us with work. As serfs, we should expect that there are other, perhaps more independent, souls, who have the guts to appoint themselves barons.

This is the real inequality in society – the imbalance between those exercising power and those yielding to it. Disparities of wealth are innocuous by comparison with disparities of power and influence. Yet most of us aid and abet these inequalities by too easily and too lazily succumbing to them. We appoint leaders whose role is to release us from the responsibility, indeed the obligation, of living our own lives according to the light of our own reason and volition. In this sense, we are expecting the wrong things from our masters. If we had any dignity at all, we should expect them to release us from such infantile wants and needs. A nobler requirement of our leaders would be to liberate us from any need to be led.

The health of a society can be measured by the proportion of people who manage their own lives by resisting the lure of employment and the fate of being led or managed by others.

Trapped as a leader

Ironically, leaders are as much the victims of power inequalities as their followers. Reflecting on the paradox of leadership 500 years ago, scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon spoke of “the strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty, or seek power over others and to lose power over oneself”. As Lord Chancellor of England, he had discovered to his dismay that this success had come at too high a price. What had seemed to him at first to be a position of prestige and influence had quickly yielded two galling effects: first, it had isolated him from his fellow humans; and second, it had rendered him no more than a routine administrator.

Today, a third effect has been added to these demeaning conditions: leaders, shorn of the “natural legitimacy” they once possessed, have become the object of merciless scrutiny. Nothing they do for their stakeholders, whether as pension-fund holders or electorates, quite comes up to scratch. Commenting on the sorrows of the modern leader, Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldin has described their “fear of seeming ignorant, stupid, or at the edge of their competence when dealing with matters they must inevitably get involved in but don’t feel deeply informed about.” As American philosopher Harry Frankfurt has observed, these are the perfect conditions in which obfuscation and evasion are the rational responses and a further decline in their prestige is the logical consequence.

Non-hierarchical organisations

Might there be another model of collective work that can dispense with leaders and followers and put in its place a different dynamic? What could this be?

Perhaps we should look for forms of collective activity that have no need of hierarchy but are nevertheless much more effective for being collaborative pursuits.

If an organisation needs strong leadership or a hierarchy of managers for it to succeed then it is a poor organisation

Good conversation might be such a candidate. In a productive conversation, we witness a kind of “leaderless leadership” in which, like a string quartet or a jazz combo, the participants each lead and follow one another in an un-choreographed dance of ideas, interruptions and initiatives. Everyone recognises each other as being equally different. The conversation goes where it needs to go. It follows its own energy. There is no agenda. A goal is not pursued. Conversationalists place trust in the process of simply conversing. Recalling the conversation later, no-one can quite remember exactly who was the author of good ideas. No-one can pinpoint the critical turning points that lent the conversation its quality or led it to its ultimate destination. It is in the space between the minds of the conversationalists that the magic occurred.

Another form of self-led organisation is an Oxford college, in which the fellows and students seem to adhere to the following principles:

  • You report to yourself
  • You follow your passion
  • You lead your own life
  • You serve your talent
  • You honour your beliefs

An Oxford college works for its members, not the other way round. The fellows and students do not see themselves primarily as working for the college, serving its interest or acting as its resources. They see the college as working for them, by providing a setting in which they and their fellow members can achieve more by working together than apart.

The moral would seem to be this: that if an organisation needs strong leadership or a hierarchy of managers for it to succeed then it is a poor organisation. The art of organisational design becomes one of dispensing with the need for leaders or managers. Without these encumbrances, people can throw off the shackles of followership, obedience, compliance and “enabled” coordination.

People who want to be led, or need to be led, or feel lost without leadership are a menace to the organisation – and disqualify themselves from becoming effective colleagues or co-workers. Conversely, someone who wants to exert authority over others or act as a leader of others disqualifies himself or herself as an effective corporate citizen. If you seek power or enjoy the exercise of power you are generally unfit to be trusted with power.

This is the paradox at the heart of leadership: those who desire it are unfit to use it and those who could use it well have no interest in exercising it. Therefore, perhaps, we should leave the concept well alone – and allow it to perish with those 20th-century leaders whose crimes and misdemeanours should serve as a monument to a deeply-flawed idea.

Comments (8)

Hutchens 4 years, 11 months and 14 days ago

Great article - I see more 'adult' work forms entering the workplace year by year. Not anarchy but rather a steady push to empower skilled & dedicated people. It's moved beyond delegations and empowering teams into new work systems like holocracy (trial), agile working, independent Freelancing etc. I think the workplace is 'growing up'

G Stevens 5 years, 8 months and 1 days ago

What absolute rubbish! This reads more like a second rate sociology essay so I'm puzzled why the author is employed by a business school. Of course there are situations where leadership in terms of power relationships is not desirable or necessary. But try doing a complex project like building a railway or developing a new car without leaders. Or try fighting a war without them. A lot of people don't find work as fulfilling as would be ideal but they do need to earn some money to pay mortgages, feed their children etc. Perhaps even to pay off their business school fees! I'd like to grab some of the particularly daft statements contained in the article and take them apart but, alas, y lunch break is over and I need to get back to work!

Andrew M 5 years, 8 months and 30 days ago

The article omits to identify that organisations by definition require organising. Colleges are only a single form of organisation as identified for example by Minzberg. To suggest that organisers, and thereby leaders ,are not required is naive - even in jazz bands. Goddard is only reflecting some of the thoughts of Charles Handy 25 years ago and misses that the employment contract is a voluntary agreement of supply and demand and does not of itself render the employee as devoid of their values, skills and identity.

Gareth MBA2003 5 years, 8 months and 30 days ago

I agree with your observations about the independence of man and the lamentable states that seems to inevitably arise. How apt that you published on May 17th - the national day of Norway. As a fertile breeding ground for the types of organisation that you suggest it seems ideal and, indeed, the difference in power and reward between the upper and lower levels of organisations there are less than elsewhere, but they still exist. Power differences are lower in Norway, in my view, because of what might be called "state intervention" - but in Norway the state really doesn't set itself apart from the people in the way it seems to in other places. Institutions seem more benign and accountable - the pauper questions the king. The king has even been spied riding his bicycle alone around Oslo without the pomp and symbolism that would attach to the Queen of England and her horse drawn carriages. I wonder though how well the collegiate approach would function when large concentration of capital is required or where a singular resource needs to be exploited. Think of mining or running a power station. How would decisions be taken quickly, who would be accountable to the owners (or "the people") for the execution of policy, the honest application of resources and the return of surplus generated to the owner? While I think your prescription is noble, maybe it is not best for capital intensive situations. It can work when the assets used to generate surplus lie solely within the ideas of the participants of the organisation who may withdraw their intellectual capital at any point. When it comes to the choice of which intellectual capital to apply to a single asset at a single point in time, the power of the individual in any negotiation is diminished. Some professional services firms organise along the partnership model and do mirror many of the characteristics that you mention. Employees (staff) graduate to become partners (free thinking members of the college with enhanced rights to influence control and share the spoils). If they manage this it is normally around 40 years old (+/- 5). But many do not. Not because they don't have the desire or ability, but because they don't have the freedom of thought - and, as it's a pyramid that concentrates earnings, the political skills to amass the required power and popularity. Returning to the Norway model, or specifically different political/societal organisations - for the idea to flourish in capiltal intensive industries may require a different mechanism for the generation and allocation of capital, the value of human "work" and thus the distribution of surpluses generated. At this point a trip to Highgate cemetery to visit the ideas that lie buried next to Marx (or a trip to Illinois to see those next to Engels) might be in order. We've tried that route and human nature got in the way. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose? Many of the conundrums of power and frailty were explored by Shakespeare - so perhaps what you lament is purely the natural outcome of the human condition. Good conversation piece though!

john.keith 5 years, 9 months ago

The critical requirement to think and act for oneself, to the benefit of all is what's being persuasively reasoned. Points of antagonism, the 50 year old manager, are hopefully for me at least metaphoric. Seeing the workplace for what it is, often keeping cogs turning, while arguably dull, overlooks that it is also a place of immeasurable potential that's often being explored. It is independent thinking that draws out that potential. And so often the "revolution will not be televised" rather happen from the inside, quietly and effectively. If I look around my colleagues right now, they are doing just that - developing and delivering ideas for clients, that on occasion are sufficiently useful, that we all benefit. A trumpeter turning to his fellow jazz musicians, "well that wasn't bad was it", is the sort of leadership that we all best practice.