Seeking the good of those you serve

August 18, 2012
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds

Published in The Times, 18th August 2012

Is leadership possible anymore? That is the provocative question raised by Harvard theorist Barbara Kellerman in her recent book, The End of Leadership.

Consider the facts. In the past forty years there has been an explosion of leadership programmes, courses, institutes and studies. Leadership has begun to enter into the very definition of what universities see themselves as doing. So, for example, Larry Summers, on becoming President of Harvard in 2001, defined its task as “the education of future leaders,” whereas its original mission had been to create knowledge and open the minds of students to that knowledge.

The Harvard School of Education takes as its task “to prepare leaders in education” rather than simply teaching teachers to teach. The same focus on leadership can be found in the mission statements of its Law, Medical, Divinity and Business Schools. Something similar is happening throughout much of the academic world.

At the same time, respect for leaders has fallen to an unprecedented low. In 2011 only 15 per cent of Americans expressed trust in the government to do what is right most of the time, down from almost 70 per cent in the 1960s. 77 per cent said they believed that the United States has a leadership crisis. Sharp declines in confidence can be traced, sector by sector, in leadership in politics, business, finance, the media, sports, education and faith-based organisations. A mere 7 per cent of American corporate employees trust their employers to be both honest and competent.

Something large is happening, not just in America but throughout much of the world. Kellerman traces it to three factors. First is the long, historic march to toward ever-greater democracy. Second is the collapse of traditional authority structures within the family that took place in the West in the 1960s, sending ripples throughout society in the form of “the death of deference.” Third is the impact of instantaneous global communication and social networking that has led to the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Wikileaks and other assaults on the citadels of power. In the hyper-democracy of cyberspace, everyone has a voice, all the time.

What then is the solution? Kellerman’s own suggestion is that we should focus on followership, not just leadership. It’s a good point, but to my mind it does not go far enough. Instead we need a model that breaks away altogether from the hierarchical relationship of leaders and followers. It’s an idea implicit in the Hebrew Bible but spelled out most clearly in the rabbinic literature from the second century onward. The principle is collective responsibility.

It arose out of one of the great crises of Jewish history. The Romans had conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple and razed Jerusalem to the ground. Under Hadrian, the public practice of Judaism had been banned. Many of the leading rabbis were crucified or burned at the stake. Jews found themselves without any of their traditional leadership cadres. There were no more kings, high priests or prophets, and the ranks of the rabbinate had been decimated.

It is then that we begin to hear the principle that “all Israel are responsible for one another.” Without land, home, sovereignty or rights, and without a clear structure of leadership, Jews realised that the future of their people and faith rested with each one of them. Each had to engage in acts of charity if their fellows were to be saved from poverty. Each had to become educated so that he or she could educate others, starting with their own children.

Highly-devolved networks began to emerge wherever Jews were. Every communal need, from education to welfare to dowries for poor brides to the dignified burial of the dead, had its own chevra, fellowship. Anyone who could was expected to serve, and leadership of any such group was regarded as both an honour and a responsibility. It was an extraordinary model of distributed leadership, sustained not by structures of power but by shared commitment. Everyone was expected to use his or her gifts for the good of others – and it worked, sustaining Jewish life through centuries of exile and persecution.

The best training for leadership and followership is a sense of responsibility for the common good. Great leadership is less about technique, charisma, or people-, political-, and number-crunching skills, than about seeking the good of those you serve. Unless we sustain a culture of altruism, there will be no real leadership, merely a striving for success or power.