Published in  
May 26, 2016

Leadership as gift

Leading is not about taking unilateral action – leading is not even about being the first, or being certain, or being influential, or being knowledgeable.

It is about an attunement to an electrifying proposal; it’s about the sensuousness of one’s situatedness within a heap. It’s about coming alive in a way that so completely disturbs the notion of hierarchy, and yet can often be construed in those ways.

The modern, industrial notion of leading takes its cue from Cartesian-Newtonian premises, where agency is arbitrarily invested in an object, and is mechanically applied to another object (This also informs defunct, but still popular, notions of communication as a ‘transfer of information’ from speaker to recipient). More specifically, this epistemology demarcates ‘subjects’ from ‘objects’, privileging the former with a rich, mental interiority, while reducing the latter into an undifferentiated broth of stimulus-response mechanisms.

The critical question in this cosmo-vision of action, at least for the ‘subject’, is ‘how do we make things move? How do we cause others to act in the way that we want?’ The assumption is that an object lies dormant until acted upon by another. This is not what we see when we learn about the world, about promiscuous voids, about adventurous particles theorizing and playing with possibilities, touching themselves, and never sitting still.

Everything moves. In fact, that is not quite an accurate thing to say. Movement is so ravishing that it is what makes ‘things’ in the first place. Movement forms the ‘I’ that moves, before the I that moves forms movement (Maxine Sheets-Johnstone). The ‘leader’ is not some transcendent intervention in the otherwise passive framework of dead objects; he or she is not the divine spark that electrifies the monstrous body of legions, as it is often glamorously implied in romanticized visions of the hero.

There is an upsetting simultaneity involved here that is often overlooked. In simple terms, there could be no ‘leader’ without a context – or without ‘followers’, if you will. The context crafts the constituents. But on closer inspection, the picture gets even more sophisticated: the binary that presupposes the unbridgeable distinction between leaders and followers breaks down. The idea that one person or a group of persons possesses qualities that legitimizes one’s claims to superintendence is an act of blindness – a political arrangement. In other words, to claim to be a ‘leader’ is to fail to account for the small, often dramatic, barely imperceptible flow of energy that comes ‘from below’ – shaping directionality and altering discourse.

When modern textbooks on leadership were first printed, the discourse was about how to equip leaders to be better at leading. How to craft a vision statement. How to inspire your followers. How to enact listening behaviour so your followers feel part of the organization. This milieu spawned questions like ‘what makes a leader?’, ‘are leaders born or made?’ There were even glitzy publications I know of that talked about the ‘look of a leader’ – the confident, high-nosed, never-give-up, we-can-do-it, I-can-figure-this-out-on-my-own-but-I’m-only-asking-a-question-because-I-need-to-help-you-feel-like-you-matter posture. The depoliticization, and simultaneous categorization of, the ‘follower’ was commonplace.

Then some authors got wind of the fact that the leader/follower dynamic wasn’t working – since, it seemed, quite unexpectedly, that ‘followers’ were more than just passive recipients of instructions. “Well, what do you know! They can figure things out on their own too?” The discourse changed from how to produce followers, to how to produce other leaders. Still, the binary needed to be maintained – in keeping with the structural constraints of contemporary organizations. Someone had to be ‘on top’. Someone had to call the shots. So, a new category was carved out: ‘the leading leader’.

I think we might be moving towards new flag points. There might come a time when we notice that the binary hides the orgasmic entanglement between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. Along with this recognition will come new forms of organizations where leadership is a holding of a shared yearning, a communal honouring of an interesting prospect and its changing shapes – rather than the predatory, often manipulative control of outcomes and people. It’s already happening. We are slowly moving away from perceiving the leader as some kind of swashbuckling MacGyver; Tolkien’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ feels more at home with what many people are now experimenting with.

I’m excited about these changes – and how this stretches the spectrum of agency and community. The implications of an entanglement perspective of leadership are profound: when we begin to see leadership as what the whole is doing, not what one man in the centre of the circle is bringing about, we are on the verge of acknowledging the paradigm-shifting truth that leadership is not even a human thing at all. We act, but we are also being acted upon in a way that subverts the agent/tool dichotomy. As such, computers are ‘leaders’; memos are leaders too.

What’s more? The burdens of being a know-it-all, of being constantly prepared, of being preternaturally intelligible, and of being morally superior, are lifted – and confusion, not-knowing, and failure start to look like resources – moments of grace.


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However, it won’t be easy to make a quantum leap from the gears and wheels of an industrial notion of leadership, to the cat-cradling, diffractive enactments of shared visioning. The habits of control are well-entrenched. People find safety and security in knowing someone is more responsible, or more accountable than they are. We are products of a cookie-cutter arrangement of worthiness. We would rather stay in our places, than get involved in the messiness that comes with intimacy.

I do not mean to imply that hierarchy is somehow unnatural or not our ‘true nature’ – and that we are evolving towards a cosmic imperative that approves of less traditional forms of organization (evolution is not representational, it is diffractive). ‘Nature’ is often marshalled as grounds to demonize other performances, and legitimize one’s own perspectives. But ‘nature’ is its own deconstruction – as we are so often reminded in the writings of Haraway and Barad. The nonhuman world is replete with examples of hierarchical models and highly regimented societies. From queen ants and pecking orders to competition over resources and alpha males, the more-than-humans know a thing or two about dominance. However, ‘nature’ is also the fungus Armillaria, which is the largest organism on the planet, and yet is composed of individual hyphae that collectively form a mycelium. Their entanglement is so ‘clear’ that it is disturbingly easy to switch between the ‘individual’ hyphae and the ‘collective’ mycelium in one’s analysis of how ‘they’ act together. Moreover, hierarchies and non-hierarchies are perhaps extremes on a spectrum that includes other modes of self-organization (penguins have territories, but not hierarchies).

We can refrain from judging people who still think highly of hierarchy. Some indigenous hierarchical models invest power in individuals without implying dominance. Consequently, between idealized visions of hierarchies and non-hierarchies, none is ‘more natural’ than the other. Both are artefactual – informed by cosmologies, environment, material yearnings and constraints. Just as light is either a particle or a wave depending on the measuring apparatus that produces the phenomenon, the ontology of leadership is indeterminate. In the corporate world of Goldman Sachs and Ford, leadership will most likely be practiced as top-down exclusivism (this is not always true, as many corporate practices are increasingly open to more democratic styles of leadership). In other settings like local businesses and co-ops that value friendship and community, leadership is talking with a friend over a cup of tea – or meeting on Thursdays to share with one another (often without being productive in the modern sense of the word).

Is escalating scale always a correlate of hierarchical leadership? I don’t know. The more critical question to ask for me is ‘what is at stake?’ If leadership is exclusively hierarchical, then relationship takes a back seat, competition becomes murderous, and sycophancy goes through the roof. But you might get things ‘done’ in a way that perhaps escapes non-hierarchies that practice more embodied rituals of leadership. On the other hand, leadership as gift might be messy, but it is fruitful in a way that mocks the finality of product.

Ultimately, at least within the context of this essay, other places of power beckon on us. We don’t always need to have someone lead the way, especially because the way – a breathing, living creature of agency beyond control – is very often already a part of the conversation that seeks to manufacture it.