PoliTuesday – There Is No Such Thing As Leadership

jnlThe world is entering an era of instability. For many years, people have complained of a crisis of leadership in the world.

There is no crisis of leadership in the world, because there really is no such thing as leadership. What we have is a crisis of followership.


But, we have to talk about “leaders” nonetheless, because the issue of followership will raise the question of whom to follow. So, let’s talk about leaders.

And, let’s start with the bad ones. There are plenty of leaders being followed who treat their followers like pawns and resources, but these aren’t leaders. They’re predators and parasites. They cheat and game the system, they manufacture pseudoscience to back up their power, they exaggerate or even invent threats to make themselves look like champions of justice.

So, what about the good ones? Aye, there’s the rub. Good leaders aren’t leaders at all, because they follow facts and principles rather than their own interests.

How do we know such people exist? How do we know they aren’t merely principled unicorns in our optimistic social fantasies?

Research into social conformity biases has shown that a majority of people will side with incorrect or immoral positions in order to fit in and protect their social status. By necessity, that same research inadvertently proves that a minority of people will sabotage their social standing to side with the facts or justice.

Check out the classic research of Milgram and Asch for an introduction to such studies. Move on to more recent research as presented by popular writers like the Ariely brothers. Think past the discussion of the majority’s biases and realize being merely a majority means … drumroll … not everyone. And, if roughly 80% of people betray the truth in order to protect their interests, this means that roughly 20% do not.

Discussion of this research tends to focus on the conformists, but the non-conformists tell a much more promising tale. These are people who will do the right thing, disregarding their own interests. These people aren’t optimistic fantasies. They’re real. And, these are people you can trust to follow.

However, are these people actually “leading”? No, they are not. They are themselves following principles and facts outside themselves. The real leaders cannot be human beings. They must be principles, which those we think of as ideal leaders merely follow.

The “crisis of leadership” is, even at the top, a crisis of followership. The leaders so many of us choose to follow are not themselves following the right impulses.


So the problem of leadership is revealed as a crisis in followership. And the “good leaders” revealed by science are themselves only worthy of followership to the extent they obediently follow principles and facts. The absolute “non-conformists,” meaning those who conform to facts, are the ideal leaders.

Good leaders have to follow the facts. They can’t dilute them, spin them, or cover them up because they’re unpopular or uncomfortable. Particularly if they are uncomfortable to themselves. They simply have to follow. Where self interest or social interest creep in to corrupt this followership, good leadership falters. Followership is the key virtue.

What does this mean for the rest of us who are seeking good leaders to guide us through the coming turmoil?

We should stop seeking leadership from those who lure us with comfortable talking points, demographic flattery, and sweet lies. And, don’t imagine for a minute that this is a veiled indictment of some partisan faction. This goes for both the Right and the Left. Both sides surrender to ideological temptation. Instead we need to find people with the cognitive chops to discern facts and the detachment needed to follow principles, even when those facts embarrass ideology.

The first part of this is relatively easy. Objective tests of fact are a cornerstone of science. That’s what those experiments in bias are based on. We know how to assess those cognitive chops. Experiment and replication. We know how this works. We know how to identify fact, and we know how to identify people who follow facts rather than self interest.

The second part is a little harder. But, if we are willing to forgo our partisan talking points, set aside the social and economic theories we’ve been trained to accept unthinkingly, and put our faith rationally in those who have shown themselves rational, we could find the leadership we’ve been looking for. We have to accept that good leadership doesn’t always make us happy. But it does keep us safe, defend the common good, and help us prosper.

And once we find it, follow. Don’t befriend, ally, admire. Follow.

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