When was the last time you were part of a group whose hierarchy was internally created and maintained, rather than imposed upon its members?
I wager that for most of us that kind of experience ended when we left the playground. Most of us operate be under the “leadership” of people we have not directly selected and we may not in fact approve of. Our hierarchies are given to us, and have been given to us for countless generations. This has caused us to largely lose sight of what a good leader should be like; or what “leadership” actually means.
Enforced hierarchies can and do raise unsuitable individuals to leadership positions. This happens in static, non-democratic structures; the son of the King becomes the King, regardless of his personal qualities. (He might lose the kinship later, mind you, but that process is generally neither easy nor victimless.) This also happens, though, in fluid, merit-based structures. If I am exceptionally good at making widgets, I may rise to be put in charge of the widget-making. This is no guarantee of competent leadership, though. The problem is that neither your genes nor your competence at any given task mean that you will inherently be good at leading people. Leadership is its own skill or talent, requiring a particular set of personal qualities.
Unfortunately, our society has taken the concept of “leadership qualities”, set it on fire, pissed on it, then buried it in a deep hole in an isolated area. Although we can and do sell “leadership solutions”, we shy away from the core of leadership, which is power. And we don’t like power, because “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I grew up with that as one of my given dogmas. The statement has so many holes in it that it deserves its own rant (to follow). Hell, the whole concept of what people think “power” means deserves a whole book. That one-liner has, however, been completely enshrined in our culture, and it will take a great deal to make it go away. I don’t know whether our love-hate relationship with power (we abhor it but crave it, as if it was a drug, or a sin) is the consequence or the result of our fucked-up approach to leadership. The result is the same: we can’t untangle the riddle of “leadership” because we’re phobic of the “power” it would yield.
What we do instead is create checks and balances for those who end up holding and wielding power. We have our Magna Carta, our constitutions, our codes of conduct, our disciplinary procedures. Instead of searching for the right person for the role, we try and make the role idiot- or psycho-proof. Instead of handing out raw power, we’re restricting ourselves to playing with the round-tip version. To a large extent we have succeeded. Most of us do not live in situations where their managers (teachers, preachers, whatever) are in a position to legally cause them serious harm. This means that, for most of us, having to suffer under a poor leader will be, although severely unpleasant, ultimately not deadly.
We’re managing the symptoms, though, not addressing the problem. Furthermore, there are situations where those limitations do not and/or cannot apply, where the dangers of poor leadership are compounded by our inability to identify it.