When I left my career in politics and public service in 2009, I was convinced that there was a fundamental problem with leadership that reached beyond party politics and partisanship.
In 2011, I wrote my first book, Lead without Followers: How to Save Our World by Radically Redefining the Meaning of Leadership, to contend that our social definition of leadership was a broken one. In politics, business and beyond, it seemed that our society bestowed the title of “leader” upon individuals almost exclusively based upon hollow measures of success and accomplishment like social status, wealth and follower counts.
Today, ten years later, we continue to see the implications of faulty leadership in all fields of politics, business and global health — not just nationally but worldwide. Questions about what we define as “leadership” and who we expect to become our leaders now feel more relevant than ever.
And yet, it’s still not a conversation that I hear us having. The question is, why? And what can we do to change it?
Leadership Is A Story
Every definition and expectation of something like leadership is, at its essence, a story. A story is an otherwise random assortment of facts, details and circumstances that we instinctively (sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously) string together into meaning, significance and order. The human brain is a story-making machine in that way. But we don’t recite stories based upon pure, objective facts but rather highly subjective interpretations of them.
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What we believe to be the “truth” or “reality” of the stories that we tell are subject to countless influences, many of which are beyond our independent choice and awareness — whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not.
Social norms and expectations shape our stories. So do national mythologies and histories, families of origin and upbringings, cultural influences, individual psychologies, emotions of a given moment, senses of self-identity and belonging, bias, privilege and more.
These influences comprise the ecosystem of our storytelling senses. They are expressed through the stories that we tell, how we tell them and to what effect they are told. They reflect who and what we value, and why.
When I left the world of politics, I saw the story of “leadership” and who we presume our leaders to be to revolve around socially lauded markers of success and accomplishment: wealth, esteem and followers.
But in the ten years since publishing my first book, I see the implicit bias and privilege hiding within the story of my own critique.
What it means, I now understand, to accrue wealth, garner esteem and gain followers in fields like politics and business is indisputably connected to the power structures, privilege and policies that assign certain fundamental worth and value to some people more than others.
Today, the story of who we expect our leaders to become and why is most significantly shaped by unconscious biases and privileges that stem from a predominantly white, male, cisgender, heteronormative and Christian-leaning society.
The word “leader” usually refers, even still today, to predominantly white, male, cisgender, heteronormative and Christian-origin persons whose values mirror the very power structures that have not only created their opportunities for wealth, status and followers but that also preserve and maintain their upward mobility into those upper echelons of society.
And we wonder why, in turn, power structures remain so static; why those who wield influence in politics, business and beyond hold such an impenetrable grip upon an ever-exclusive amount of wealth, authority and influence; why power brokers seem to perpetuate more of themselves at the expense of anyone different while finger-wagging those not like them for their “fault” in not doing better or achieving more on America’s so-called “equal playing field.”
At the same time, systems, structures and stories — the definitions and expectations that exist within the minds of so many as “unequivocal truths” — disadvantage those who do not fit their mold.
The definition of leadership is indeed broken, but for reasons far greater than I understood when I first tried to assess the problem ten years ago.
A New Leadership Story
Over the last decade, the porcelain mask of my own privilege and bias as a white, straight, cisgender man of Christian upbringing has slipped to reveal the truth of my own ignorance and complicity in the long-entrenched and protected power structures that exclude more people than they include in our society.
I have realized just how short my critique of the so-called “leadership problem” had come from identifying the root cause of the issue when I wrote my first book.
We cannot have a conversation about a “broken definition of leadership” that defines leaders based on their wealth, status, acclaim and followers without first having a conversation about the power structures, policies and stories that enable, protect and preserve that ultra-privileged minority as our expectant leaders.
The untold story behind the story that our society tells us is one in which whiteness, maleness, straightness, cisgenderedness and Christianness are requisites of what it means to be a leader.
If this story doesn’t change, we’ll remain complicit in furthering these toxic and long-entrenched prejudices that have reserved leadership roles in the Western world for the few, not the many, for hundreds of years.
Something as simple as a story can’t change policy. But a new story of leadership could begin to alter, influence and support new expectations about who we instinctively think “ought” to lead or be called our leaders.
A decade after attempting to introduce the conversation, I am still obsessed with the stories of who we call our “leaders” and what “leadership” means to a majority of people in a democratic society.
And yet, redefining the stories around who we want to be our leaders and why are still not conversations that I hear enough people having.
Aren’t we overdue for a heartfelt, honest and thorough redefinition of what we want leadership to mean to us, moving forward?