The Myth of Leadership

An academic exploration of how the idea of leadership has evolved over the years – from a more abstract view to one based on embeddedness and locality.

The last few decades have been years of irony and paradox, where political correctness rather than truth served as the ideal of order. One lived in a society where concepts that labelled forms of life and ways of living collapsed. Ideas like Rationalism created monsters, efficiency eliminated people, expertise invented iatrogeny, democracy led to a slow authoritarianism. Each of the great concepts out of which we created the dreams of the future turned into nightmares.

In facing such irony and paradox, modern society faced the crisis of language. Language demanded surprise, variability and emergence. It was a world where Kafka and Alice could coexist. But the scientific idea was based initially on a correspondence theory of truth. It was positivist and there was a correlation between the model and the reality. It created an idea of certainty, replicability, even a sense of mechanical trust.

Today science has changed. The idea of risk showed that certainty and complexity need not coexist. Knowledge was no longer predictable. The crisis of the sciences triggered by quantum physics and ecology created a post-Newtonian science, a science of panarchy, where a solution need not be applicable at every level of scale. More importantly, expertise was no longer treated as sacrosanct and a layman often proved the expert wrong. The debates in ecology and especially nuclear energy showed that experts, rather than being objective and truthful, merely served the interests of their masters. As Arthur Koestler once said, value neutrality was one of the greatest myths of 20th century science.

The social sciences, particularly economics, management and psychology went through their own dramas of certainty. From Pavlov to Skinner, there was a school that believed social behavior, like rational behavior, was predictable and mechanistic. The crisis in the social sciences created its own tremors in society, and in democracy. The social systems once viewed with trust now looked at expertise with suspicion. One word that became a great source of suspicion was leadership. Earlier the leader arose from a dynamic of social forces that was psephologically predictable. Sadly, leadership was seen in a sanitized form. It had a disembedded quality. Citizens slowly realized that charisma had a misleading quality. It was more a construct created by propaganda machines.

The old idea of leaders as exemplars – evoked in the lives of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela – suddenly seemed remote. The old idea of leadership was home grown, native. The new idea of leadership was loaded with a sense of science. Leadership became more a province of management, of manipulation. It is this manipulative idea of leadership that gradually became suspect. Democracy realized that citizenship could no longer be based on a passive idea of consumerism and voting. It grasped that leadership could no longer be passively accepted. Leadership was not an arrogant stencil one cut on the masses.

Secondly, sociological forces did not work mechanically. Leadership was no longer something one could take for granted. It was a result of a combination of a lack of trust, a weakening of faith in science and an outburst of agency among citizens. The leader then becomes a mere Rorschach in the mind of the citizen rather than a separate agency shaped in the popular mind. The rise of Trump as well as the exits of Cameron and Clinton, are merely reflections of the end of the myth of leadership. When we converted an ethical view of leadership into a technological and managerial idea of the leader, we created a hollow concept of the leader as an artifact, an alien construct who performs independent of a society. It is the failure of leadership that we see in post normal society.

Leadership as an entity – whether it involves a Zuma, an Abe, a Putin, a Cameron, a Modi – no longer evokes respect. It is neither science nor ethics. It lacks the power of myth. Castro in that sense was the last mythical leader. The new idea of democracy prefers to locate the leader on streets and in small groups, but the leader as a construct created out of professional politics is a glib, incredulous figure.

This, democracy has taught us. We might still trust in God, but trust in a leader is a remote phenomenon. One of the great entropies of politics is the leader. The intensive effort by which he has to be sustained is not worth it. Politics is demanding a return to trust, embeddedness and locality rather than an abstract idea of a leader, who is a fiction today. The sadness lies in the fact that we lived with such fictions for years. Today it is the leader, not the emperor, who has no clothes. Democracy in a moment of clowning has demystified leadership. A jester like Trump becomes the king – demystifying the idea of leadership once and for all.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.