Believing Is Seeing

Trying to explain “Leadership” and “Leaders” is like describing the mythical gods who served a purpose for a time.  It is a story based on a perception of reality: that there is a recipe for leading.  I do believe that leaders exist.  I just cannot fully describe how they do what they do until the result has been accomplished.

Throughout the centuries men and women have looked for causality and for purpose.  At the same time, addictions are nothing new in society: sex, gambling, alcohol, smoking, drugs, shopping, hand held devices..….   A large number of people seem to need something to help get them through the day.  Why is it that regardless of the period in history, some find it difficult to live without an external “boost”?  Is there a connection between man’s search for meaning and a craving for purchased pacifiers to live?  Is there a connection between man’s search for causality and man’s ability to create a cause when none is apparent?

When I think about almost every (non-fiction) book that has been written, I conclude that it is either the author’s desire to explain reason and result (HOW it happened), or to explore purpose, why, or WHAT people need to be.  Every book either explains HOW things happened (science and history) or HOW people acted (biography and business); or, the book helps us think about WHAT we need to be if we are to get somewhere (philosophy).

Books that explain tend to have a “shelf life” because the explanation changes as our understanding changes. Apollo moved the sun across the sky until the next group of smart people figured out that the earth stood still.  We make a god of the most current explanation – until we find a better one.  All of this supports the rationale that there are no “facts” there are only perceptions based on our beliefs.  That is, what brought about the result may not be what we believe it to be.  Those of us who want to know HOW IT HAPPENED may have a temporary answer.

Books that help us think about WHAT we need to BE are more lasting because they don’t provide an answer, they provide a way to think about the answer so we can shift our actions depending on what we learn along the way.  The North Star hasn’t significantly changed position in the sky over all recorded time and thus it has been a consistent guide to travelers.  Said another way, Guiding Principles don’t change much over time.  The hard part is to figure out the Guiding Principles.  Books that help us figure this out tend to have much longer shelf life – often many centuries.

Why do we search for purpose–the moral compass and guidance in our actions?  Isn’t it simpler to just go along for the ride and let “nature take its course”?  Isn’t it more comfortable to let the crowd decide what is right rather than take a stand and stand out like a sore thumb? Why is the question WHY so important?  Why is it so difficult for humans to make choices and take responsibility for their choices?  After all, the ability to choose is fundamental to being human.  When we have a purpose, choice is much easier.  If there is no WHY, choice is very elusive.

I wonder, isn’t the human need to create gods to explain what is inexplicable and the human need to find leaders to invent and create purpose the same? Humans invent a cause when they don’t have a factual explanation. Much of what was attributed to the whims and activities of gods we now understand as our knowledge has evolved.  We no longer believe that thunder is the sound of warring gods.  We no longer believe that rainbows are painted or that wind is caused by the four Anomi gods who were always up to something.  Don’t we look for leaders when we don’t know what to do?  Won’t we become engaged in a possibility that seems unrealistic if we believe in the leader?  Do we make the leader the god who has the answer that we couldn’t find ourselves?  If the leader is a “good” (in our perception) god we continue to follow; if the leader is a “bad” (in our perception) god, we find a replacement or we just get out of the way. The leader, like the mythical god, is always up to something (good or bad, in our judgment).

If it is human nature to explain and understand, then the advances of science and knowledge have eliminated the need to worship the multiple gods who controlled the environment.  Education has allowed society to become more secular. So why has the study of Leadership become so prevalent in the last few generations?  Is the Leader the new god?

If humans seek purpose, then are pacifiers the replacement that enable them to wake up each day, do what has to be done, and stay alive to live another purposeless day?  And when they don’t know what to do, do they worship the leader-god who offers an answer –  because it is easier to blame someone else than to make a choice yourself?

Return to the original thesis: humans create a cause (gods) when they do not understand, they look for a purpose in life, will default to pacifiers when they cannot find a purpose, and leadership is not a one trick pony – it is completely situational.  To accomplish, one must have a philosophy of life, an important purpose that includes a wide range of stakeholders, a belief that leaders leverage through others, and a passion to do what is necessary to advance the purpose.  The virtuoso leader has a purpose that is far-reaching, a clear understanding of what is important to think about to achieve that purpose, a path for how to think about it, competent people, an organization structure that is right for the given situation (and can change as the situation changes), and the communications skills to give meaning to what happens, no matter what the situation.

None of this can be “taught” per se because every person performs the role differently and every situation is different.  If we cannot describe the HOW of Leadership, then leaders must be gods who just make things happen.  Or, we can assess the situation in light of our purpose, possess the thinking and have the tools to make the best choices.  And then hope that luck is on our side.

Jeannette Hobson

Fellow, The Thayer Institute for Performance Virtuosity

May 30, 2016