Follow the leader, but which one?

Leadership isn’t a commodity to be outsourced to corporate figureheads and celebrities. It’s something that belongs to everyone.

Robert Holtom
10 December 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

A self-made human being is a myth. No one pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps alone or molds themselves from clay. We are all inheritors of interwoven histories, cultures and communities. The places we live in have been crafted over centuries, and the benefits we enjoy are the legacies of those who came before us. We are all dependent on other people.

Yet today’s dominant narratives of leadership promote a very different picture: the ego-driven social entrepreneur or eco-guru who tells the rest of us how to succeed—usually from a privileged position—while downplaying the contributions made by everybody else. Leadership is presented as a scarce resource that only a few charismatic individuals possess.

In truth, everyone is capable of leading. We lead by example every day in the actions we take and the work that we do. To face up to the challenges that confront us we need more leaders who reflect these truths and recognise the value and importance of community.

To illustrate these points, it’s useful to contrast two different leadership exemplars: Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple, and Selma James, the co-founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign.

Invariably, Jobs is presented as a maverick, and the prime mover in Apple’s success. He was almost deified as an icon of Silicon Valley, and after his untimely death his legacy has been mythologized. As a guide to his thinking on leadership, consider Jobs’ Commencement Speech to Stanford University on 12th June 2005.

The speech is fifteen minutes long, and on numerous occasions he emphasizes the global success of Apple. Whilst the pronoun ‘I’ is used 93 times, ‘we’ appears ten times, and only once does he mention his first colleague and Apple’s subsequent employees. All the other stories he tells concern his own life—his birth and dropping out of college, his random attendance at a calligraphy class and his passion for computing, all tied into the success of his company.

Jobs’ feats are impressive, but the speech smacks of the ‘hero’s quest’—an individual who battles naysayers and reactionary board members while dealing with constant rejection and frustration. He turns these battles into triumphs that celebrate his own determination and ability. Getting help along the way is never mentioned. It seems there’s only one character in Steve Jobs’ story, and that’s Steve Jobs.

Interestingly, the advice he gives to Stanford’s graduating class is somewhat vague: do what you love, never settle, stay hungry and stay foolish. These adages worked well for Jobs, who admits he was lucky to find his passion for computing at the age of 20. But there’s little substance in them. They are broad enough to apply to everyone, and unspecified enough to have no concrete value. What does it mean to ‘never settle?’  Must we remain restless our whole lives, until we’re convinced that we’ve finally found the one ‘right thing?’

In reality, Jobs’ speech portrays a stale form of leadership—a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in which expounding on one’s own achievements and encouraging others to do the same are the central motifs. At no point does Jobs acknowledge the many helpers, mentors and co-workers who have made Apple what it is today.

In this, Jobs is not alone. The ‘frat boy’ culture of Silicon Valley is regularly exposed in the press, most recently at Uber, the alternative taxi company, whose executives have been criticized for their sexism and misogyny in using their technology to spy on and bribe women. Uber’s CEO Emil Michael has also suggested that reporters who criticize his company should be investigated. Despite calls for his resignation, the leaders of Uber have closed ranks around him.

Steve Jobs is not to blame for this culture, which has much deeper roots in patriarchy and increasingly corrupt forms of capitalism. But in a world where the CEOs of Silicon Valley companies are sometimes presented as near-gods, it’s no surprise that they often act without regard for others.

By contrast, consider the example of Selma James, who I heard speak at a recent conference called Feminism in Theory and Action, which was held at Wadham College, Oxford. James is a writer, activist and co-founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign—an initiative that recognises that because housework and childcare form the basis of society and the economy, they should be supported financially.

She gave the closing talk to the conference, but there were few personal anecdotes about her own feats and achievements. Instead, James described the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London, possibly the oldest surviving place of its kind in the city. She made a point of listing all the various groups that are housed there, including Women Against Rape and the International Prostitutes Collective. Each organisation was presented and celebrated, along with the people who make them work. James extended an open invitation to the Centre to everyone in the room.

What inspired me about her talk was that it recognized the works of others, and placed them centre stage. It embraced the contributions of individuals within the larger feminist movement, and it had a strong moral core, thus inviting support from her audience. This was not a talk about leadership, but a demonstration of its meaning, delivered with humility and compassion—a form of leadership that accepts that there’s far more to a movement than its spokesperson or figurehead.

What’s more, James acknowledged that any struggle for equality applies to all of our struggles, whether we approach an issue from the perspective of gender, race, sexuality, class or inter-sectionality. Rather than presenting her campaign as the most important, she was proud to place it as one of a myriad of efforts that are striving for equality, acknowledging that they all work for common goals in different ways. In this sense, leadership and success are shared responsibilities and community-building actions in themselves.

A generous approach to movement building like this is far more likely to attract a diverse range of members and supporters. Occupy is a good example of a self-styled ‘leaderless or leaderfull’ movement that actively discourages hierarchy and promotes ‘horizontality.’ The Transition Network is another—empowering communities around the world to move beyond their dependence on fossil fuels in ways that respect local diversity. Like James, the spokespersons for these movements eschew forms of leadership that are founded on the relentless affirmation of ego.

This is the antithesis of the Steve Jobs approach to leadership, which dovetails perfectly with the individualistic and competitive worldview of neoliberal capitalism. In this worldview, only a few individuals can reach the top, and those that do become the poster children for a new generation of strivers, whether they are film stars, entrepreneurs, politicians or celebrities. The implication is that others can reach these heights if only they work hard enough—if only they can ‘stay hungry and never settle’ in Jobs’ words.

However, the truth is that there are only a few seats at the ‘top table’ of capitalism, and even when someone makes it to the ‘promised land’ their position is never guaranteed. They must always ‘watch their backs.’ CEOs like Jobs need to ensure that investors remain confident in their companies’ performance, so their leadership persona is crucial, but such personas inevitably reflect the insecurity of their position.

Whereas there’s only room for one CEO of Apple, the more people who lead in social movements the better. No one needs to be given permission to lead—we lead in our own lives everyday.

Leadership is not another commodity to be outsourced to corporate figureheads or celebrities. It belongs to all of us together.


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