Up till now, I think we have had two broad forms of leadership.
Firstly, from the time we came off the Savanna until the Industrial Revolution starting, depending where you live, the mid 1700’s, we had mainly Sovereign Leadership. Whether led by hereditary power, or military might, (or often both) leadership was assertive (to be generous) and non negotiable. The leader decided, followers obeyed and failure resulted in a swift and often brutal change.
With a deep nod to the more inclusive forms of leadership, from the Greeks to the North American Indians who we must still learn from, modern day democracy emerged after the massive changes of the Industrial Revolution, driven in part by new forms of economic power, technology and wider, deeper, faster communication. S/he who could gather the most followers got to lead. Gathering followers involved making promises, and our politics became a form of promise economy.
We seem to approaching the end of that as the promises get less credible.
So what follows it?
Robin Dunbar in his book “How many friends does one person need” suggested the answer was no more than 150. Broadly; five as a leadership group, 50 as an operating group (like a business unit) and 150 as a maximum social group.
There’s lots of debate about this, but also a lot of evidence. Recent history (200 years is, in the scheme of things, only a while) overwhelmed this as the sheer industrial power of economies of scale swamped more social logic. We seem however to be reaching the end of that. With the potential to connect everybody, (and indeed every thing) to each other production scale becomes subservient to connection.
Which brings us to meaning and purpose.
The concept of “peak stuff” is getting a lot of exposure at present. The idea that consumption as a goal has limits, whether that is manufactured, physical stuff, or even ‘experiences’. Chindogu has its limits.
To be philosophical for a moment, the soul can only take so much pollution and in the end will reject what does not grow it.
There’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as a dis-eased soul, and perhaps little as destructive as the causes they will follow.
Leadership needs to evolve.
Whatever we are aiming to lead, whether a political movement, a not for profit, or a business, people will only follow if what we offer grows them as people and feeds rather than starves their soul. (The finances matter of course, but like “stuff” has its limits)
Those of us of my vintage, (I find myself astonished but grateful to be in my seventh decade) grew up in what looks like in retrospect economic stability. Get Educated, Get a job with a pension, Retire. As many of us found, the upside was largely illusory security, the downside was that for most of us our jobs defined and ruled us. A mortgage is a strong anchor. I was grateful to escape.
For those entering the economy now, life is very different.
Churchill is supposed to have said “If you want to lead the English, find out where they’re going and walk in front of them”. This I think is even more true now, and not just for the English. Meaning matters.
Meaning matters way more than money to those entering the economy. Money matters of course, but is no longer the prime concern. It seems clear that we are willing to lead simpler, but more meaningful lives if we can “be” more than “do”, and give ourselves a fighting chance of not destroying the planet we live on.
Leadership is changing. It has always been about winning hearts and minds in shared purpose, but now the purpose is different, less selfish, and more generous.
Leadership is not just an acquired skill, or set of competencies. Yes we need those, but at its core, it is about doing something important that explains our lives to those who follow us.
That places a humbling duty on leaders to not only be clear for themselves, but to be able to inspire followers with paths to things that matter for them rather than just “things”.
If we want to be leaders, it begins with the story of us, and what matters to us,