In periods of uncertainty people demand a strong, decisive leader. This is why so many politicians and business executives behave with single-minded, stubborn arrogance. They believe that’s their job. But former corporate executive Johan Schaberg, now a leadership consultant, stresses that true leaders don’t lead but follow–a dream, an ideal, freedom for their country.
Johan Schaberg | March 2005 issue
The world is not as safe as it was 10 years ago. People today are seeking strong leaders, someone who promises them protection against hostile threats. The only thing people have to do is give up a few small things, such as freedom of movement, the right to express their opinion and, they must also be willing to die for their leader.
Books on leadership crowd the shelves of bookstores’ Business and Management sections these days. Nearly all of them are weighty tomes. They are full of tips on how to act as a strong leader and how to deal with the people around you. They emphasize that if you follow all the tips, you will achieve the important goal of becoming a leader yourself.
Generally, I find these books depressing because they assume leadership is an ideal and there’s something wrong with people who are not leaders. These non-leaders are apparently lacking something, and to make up for it they must study lessons like the “habits of highly effective people”. The reader can then master these habits and join the select group of chosen ones. There is something secretive and mystical about the topic of leadership—as if leaders are privy to a higher knowledge that enables them to separate themselves from the fuss and bother faced by mere mortals.
You never see any books or articles about how to be a good follower. Apparently it’s in your nature, a primitive stage of development you must somehow escape as soon as possible. The reality of followers’ lives seems best addressed in comics like Blondie (sweet and innocent) or Dilbert (hard and confrontational).
What we see today everywhere outside the funny pages is a glamorization of leaders and sorry denigration of anyone who is not. And those who are not account for, say, 90 percent of the population—all those women and men who care for the needy, drive trucks, check train tickets, work as cashiers or clerks, keep households running and happy and on and on. All these are activities that matter and that directly benefit other people.
From way back in my childhood I was taught that “the here and now is no good and there’s only one place to be, and that’s at the top”. The top was a kind of Mount Olympus, a high mountain where a select group of gods reveled in one another’s company, enjoyed delicious food and drink and occasionally cast a pitying look down below on those less fortunate beings saddled with grief, need, illness, hunger and death.
My own ascent of Olympus began with an expensive and prestigious MBA degree from Harvard, followed by an explosive career in finance and business. In my own way I became a decisive leader; I headed up companies with hundreds of employees and I was convinced that they would suffer serious harm if I failed.
This took me pretty close to what I thought was Olympus. But the ascent became increasingly difficult and tiring, as I climbed farther and farther from the green valley where I began. A deep feeling crept over me: “What am I doing here on this cold, steep mountainside in this thin air? Down below, smoke is spiraling out of friendly chimneys and I see tiny little people on the market square laughing and eating and drinking. That’s where life is, where it’s cozy, where all the fuss is. Fuss is wonderful!”
And that’s how I stumbled and slid back down the mountain. Thankfully, when I landed back at the bottom no one was angry I’d been away so long. Truth be told, no one had really missed me. But my family and friends were pleased that I once more joined them in doing all those important things I used to consider fuss. Wiping children’s noses, cheering up an unhappy neighbor, picking apples and exchanging stories in the market square—lots of stories, and laughter…
A lot of so-called leadership stems from ambition. And that’s why things so often go wrong. Ambition is a hole in your ego, an empty space that needs filling and you think you can fill it by making other people look up to you. But you won’t be able to lead that way. You can take the lead, but it doesn’t mean you know where you’re going. Let alone whether it’s good for the people who are following you—or, for that matter, for you. When ambition is the motivating factor, the leader is not a true leader, but a commander. This kind of leader gives orders, doles out punishment, offers rewards, and manipulates everyone because the leader’s aim is to fill a hole within by taking from others.
The true leader doesn’t set out to lead at all. Whether other people follow is, to him or her personally, of secondary importance. These kind of leaders don’t lead, they follow—a dream, an ideal, freedom for their country, a good life for their family. And they’re very clear about it, which touches the people around them who then want to share in the dream. True, authentic leaders know they are connected to something bigger. Their wish is to serve that. Leadership is an outcome, not someone’s goal or personal quality. You become a leader because people choose to follow you; not because you’ve read a book or taken a course on leadership. Leaders are not all larger than life figures like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. A leader is also the mother in an Indian village whose goal is to give her children a better start in life and, to this end, scrapes together the money to buy a sewing machine and starts making clothes. Her ideals and example become a continual source of inspiration to her children and others all around her.
Leadership is also about servitude. Those who serve a higher goal know how to remain small—while appearing big to everyone else. They respect and honor others who are seen as smaller, because they understand that big and small are relative points on an endless scale.
A leader can feel big because he or she doesn’t have to pretend to be bigger than they are. Leaders can allow themselves to be small, because big and small are equally valuable. He doesn’t have to bark at others, because barking makes you small. Nor will she kick those under her because that, too, is a sign of smallness. When you don’t feel threatened, you don’t have to defend yourself or attack others.
Leadership is about finding meaning in life. But those who believe that their role as leader means they must create meaning for all the people around them are vastly overestimating themselves. A leader shouldn’t provide meaning; meaning comes from the goal that inspires him or her. And those who are inspired pass that inspiration on to others. Not because they are bold and charismatic leaders, but simply because it’s infectious. They can’t help it.
The leader may gain inspiration from above, from the goal. But the driving power and the energy come from below, from the followers. This is why it’s so important for followers to be picky about whom they give energy to—to a leader or to a commander. And whether as followers they are motivated by the lack of something within or by the meaning of a higher purpose. Followers driven by inner emptiness become a plundering mob, their leader a tyrannical autocrat. Their aims are no higher than pleasure, wealth and power: the attributes of the ego. Examples on a global scale are legendary and notorious— Nero, Attila, Hitler, Pol Pot—but they can also be found in families, companies and on soccer teams. The destructive power of inner emptiness is formidable.
To me, the symbol that captures the essence of leadership is the figure on the cross—familiar to Christians but appearing in other traditions. When I think of Mandela or King or the Indian mother I mentioned earlier, I see someone who is standing with both feet on the ground, their head open to the heavens and arms spread wide to the world. Like a welcoming, protective force blessing all those (?? – corr.) around them. The connection is vertical, from below to above; the effect is horizontal, stretching from person to person.
Can you learn to lead? Yes. Simply stop not doing it. You have a life, start living it—that’s the beginning of all leadership. Determine which goals you are currently following. If you’re following egotistical goals, ask yourself whether it’s really necessary. Maybe you’ve already filled your inner emptiness. Then you can start looking to see if there are other things to be done—things that may not necessarily make you richer or more important but that will stir you at a deep level. If you don’t (yet) see them, invite them into your life, make a place for them and be prepared for them to come.
Gather courage, the courage to follow, because when it comes to high aims, it’s not you who chooses the aim. It chooses you. The aims that allow themselves to be chosen by you are, by definition, not high. Be open and look around. It may not be your aim to save the world’s climate, but to be a support to your young dyslexic neighbor. More to the point, anyone who is always preoccupied with the climate and doesn’t see his neighbor may well be primarily occupied with his ego. Because as lofty as your goal appears, it will take shape right beside you, down at your level.
Johan Schaberg studied English and literature in his native Netherlands and got an MBA diploma from Harvard Business School. He then took over ailing companies and whipped them into shape. He floundered when another ailing company appeared to be too much out of shape. Got to know his wife and children during a sabbatical. Is now a personal advisor at Top Executive Care, an advisory company that focuses on leaders and their organizations.