Thursday, June 10, 2010

Leadership, Culture, and the Market

A few of my libertarian friends have been "beating me up" on Facebook for some of what I said about leadership in my last blog entry. I'm just beginng to formulate what I'd call a "Libertarian Theory of Leadership." Let me see what I can salvage. First of all, I've been teaching a graduate course on Ethical Issues in Organizations for many years and I'm working on a bibliographical essay on Ethical Leadership this summer. It's interesting stuff! Most of the recent research penned by social scientists either seeks to identify the individual traits that constitute leaders; or understand the social dynamics between leaders, followers, and other stakeholders. Philosophers, tend to look at the conceptual dynamic: What exactly do we mean when we label someone as "leader," "follower," a "good leader" or "good follower?" For most of us leadership resembles pornography: "We know it when we see it." For philosophers that not enough.

We do know that we humans have a universal propensity to socially organize ourselves based on leadership and followership. We first experience it on the playground in grade school, where certain kids "take the lead." As I stated in my last essay, that's natural. We still exhibit that behavior because it facilitated the passage of human genes across generations. My take on it? Social organization based on hierarchical structures with powerful leaders perched at the top, "worked" during the Pleistocene era, but not in complex modern society. It "worked" in in small hunter-gather societies because one "leader" could know enough to facilitate group survival. Hence, the genes for leadership and deferential followership facilitated human survival. Unfortunately, we still have those genes. The genes for hierarchical leadership tend to follow the Y chromosome, that is some males have the natural impulse to "take charge" and most everyone else has the natural impulse to follow that leader. Followers also tend to willingly bestow authority upon leaders; that is we allow them to make individual and collective decisions for us. Followers also tend to "value" leaders more than followers, and therefore we willingly shower them with social privileges that most followers do not enjoy: more sex, more food, more resources etc. Again, I think this is all natural. But it's no longer good. My basic argument is that libertarians must be wary of our natural inclination to coronate leaders and shower them with special privileges. That's how we succumb to totalitarian leadership.

Now back to my contention that today we have too many leaders and that our culture tends to over-pay leaders. Let's see if I can salvage this idea. Let's say that like everything else, leaders are subject to market forces and therefore they are subject to market fluctuations. Call it the leadership market. Philosophers are experiencing the lower end of that business cycle right now! I think that leaders are now about to face that same downturn. Because of the widespead availability of information, we now are coming to the realization that our leaders are not Godlike (omniscient and omnipotent), that they are fallible, and that we pay them more than they are worth. In short, a market correction is now underway. (Ask President Obama!) As a libertarian, I think this is a good thing. Throughout most of human history leaders have been generally given a free pass. They've been able to control information, competition, and even control entry and exit from leadership positions. They've often used government to protect their lofty positions. Interestingly, when we discover leadership chicanery, we say: "Oh, he's not a real leader!" What's going on there?


writewriterandtutor said...

I agree with just about all that you say here, Ron. The only exception is this: the average person's acquisition of critical thinking skills is not keeping up with the exceptionally large flow of unorganized information coming from the internet, so it is harder to discern who, leaders or follows, really knows what truth is. There's more obfuscation and that is making us less informed despite access to large amounts of information. I would argue this is deliberately so, and this provides a warning to libertarians and all freedom loving people.

Freedom's Philosopher said...

I agree with you WWT! Many students lack the skill to detect bad leaders. The first step is to dissolve both public schools and public employee unions.

Morgan Moubray said...

I agree with everything in this article. I do believe that humans are built to organize themselves and that this worked in the hunter and gatherer days because one person could lead the rest of the group and that person knew enough to prosper. We have too many leaders now a days. Do all of our leaders really know the truth about everything? How can we be sure that following them is the best thing for us to do? Some people today no longer trust leaders and this would have never been heard of before now. This post brings out that our way of leadership is simply not working anymore and I could not agree more.