The Responsibility of the Followers: Some Particular Leadership Traits

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Let me tell you a few things about leadership in general. Leadership is a group phenomenon. Any group will look for a leader, either formal or informal, either temporary or permanent – in every situation, a group or a team or a people will look for someone to follow. Leadership is not a character trait, nor a learned skill, nor a method or a set of behaviors. Leadership is a kind of relationship that is always sought out by groups and leaders alike. There is no one type of leader. Not even a small set of types of leaders. There are probably thousands of types of leaders. Leadership is too complex and depends on so many details – just as any complex relationship, especially a group relationship – that it becomes very restrictive and naïve to believe we can categorize them in a shortlist of types. But we can look into some concepts of psychology and analyze a few traits in different leaders – or a few traits in the relationships of leadership between leaders and followers. Of course, all of what I have said is pretty much controversial and expresses my beliefs and studies over the years – but bear with me.

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So, there’s this kind of leader that we can call a ‘Leader-that-is-supposed-to-know’ (LSTK). This is actually the first kind of leader we encounter in our lives. As we come out of our warm and forgiving mother’s womb to face the dark disappointing frustrations of reality, we are vulnerable and ignorant. We look to our parents for guidance. They are the ones who will tell us what to do, what are the dangers, and the protocols, our rights and our responsibilities. They are the ones ‘supposed-to-know’. They are our first leaders and our first LSTK’s. We obey them implicitly and they are the examples we follow and the sculptors of our early behaviors. When we grow up we are sometimes tempted to look for these kinds of leaders again. Individuals who will fill the voids of our vulnerabilities at any time and who will be able to tell us here and there what we should do and how we should behave. Some leaders will, in fact, believe this should be their main role: know what each follower should do and demand it of them – sometimes reprimanding them for not knowing in advance what should be done. Treating their followers like children, they still get frustrated when these don’t act as adults themselves. This replication of a parent-child relationship in a workplace or other adult environment is considerably misguided. It is generally a tragic mistake from both leaders and followers, and for both leaders and followers.

There is another kind of leader we can call the ‘Good-enough Leader’ (GEL). Contrary to our superficial infantile assessment, a good mother or father is not simply an adult ‘supposed-to-know’, is not simply someone who knows what we are supposed to do and demands it of us. A ‘Good-enough’ parent has a much more comprehensive role – he/she is able to contain the anguish and anxiety, to support the efforts of the baby to fend for his/herself, and, most importantly of all, be able to convey to the baby a positive self-image – in summary, one of Love. A ‘Good-enough Leader’, as a ‘Good-enough Mother’, does not assume knowing everything a follower should do or not do. A GEL will help the followers to develop their own roles and support them in their efforts to grow and assume responsibilities themselves. Doing this, the GEL assumes a daunting risk: he/she will have to face unrealistic expectations from the followers who may want determination, orders, no pain or responsibility, magic solutions to all problems, success in all situations.

These unrealistic expectations are a major trap we followers must be aware of as we choose our leaders. It is easy to be fooled or pushed into relationships characterized by LSTK leadership – after all, it may be convenient at an earlier time to receive clear-cut orders on what to do, and be able to always know who to follow. But it is a fools’ errand. In the end, a GEL will be a much more effective and complete leader, even though his/her style may be more uncomfortable and sophisticated at times – avoiding the temptations of simple but self-defeating or basically wrong top-down decisions. An LSTK will tell you what to do, while a GEL will want you to be involved, make decisions, vote, share the responsibility – all these uncomfortable things.

mid_MH_011040A particular type of ‘Leader-that-is-supposed-to-know’ is what we can call the ‘Savior/Victim’ Leader.  ‘S/VL’s identify themselves with a group allegedly victimized, claiming they are victims themselves, so they can, in turn, assume the role of Saviors, the ‘Chosen ones’ able to confront all enemies and save the victims from all injustices – the ones who know the path to glory. Some ‘Savior/Victim’ leaders are ‘Martyrs’ – they sacrifice themselves so that their followers can receive their own power and save themselves. We can see that in Jesus Christ or the Spartacus in Kubrick’s movie I spoke about here.  But most ‘Savior/Victim’ Leaders work in their own interest and suck the power from their followers becoming immensely powerful on the shoulders of the powerless themselves. Examples are leaders like Adolf Hitler, Mao Ze-dong or Donald Trump. Of course, they are not victims and really do not belong to the group they are claiming, nor are they able to save it. They are mostly illusionists and con-artists, convincing a vulnerable mass they will stop the hurt and the hopelessness. Instead, they work to increase this hurt and hopelessness that serve them so well.

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The main responsibility, though, is with the followers. First of all, accepting an LSTK, looking for a savior, believing in magical solutions, is a certain path to tragedy and catastrophe. There are no magical solutions – understanding that is a crucial part of growing up and a crucial pillar of a mature mind. Every solution, every decision, every obstacle overcome, has a cost. If we really want a ‘Good-enough’ leader we must stop looking for someone who is promising the sky and heaven on Earth. We must stop imposing impossible demands on our leaders, or be discouraged by the minor negative detail, and we must start working for the future, believing in the future ourselves. Perfection is an illusion. Life is not perfect. If we want someone real, and effective, working to solve real problems and searching for real solutions, we must stop deluding ourselves in the first place. Virtue is very often in the center. The more radical we become the more deluded we will be. Democracy is about compromise and about collaboration and about being able to bring people together. The more radical we are, the more we are rejecting this dynamic.

So, “first of all, we’ll be judged by our courage”. But not just the courage to destroy and ravish and break – also the courage to stop, to see and to think. And to ban populist and childish illusions. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors. Stay in the fight.

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