Mar 282008

The high excitement among Democrats in the US about the Clinton-Obama race; the expectations on all sides of change in Cuba following Fidel Castro’s retirement; the sudden resignation of Governor Spitzer in New York and the change in the political climate there that is expected to follow. What do these have in common?

I want to point to the fact that the identity of the one, single, top leader still seems to have enormous influence on the direction of almost every political or other unit. (The others include corporations, gangs, universities, symphony orchestras…..) I suspect that Castro, for instance, stayed in power for nearly half a century precisely because he realized that his thoughts and will were necessary to keep Cuba on the course he wanted for it. His assumption —conscious or not — was, I think, that no set of guiding principles nor a common understanding among a large, intergenerational group of like-minded people could be trusted to keep Cuba on his preferred course. He was certainly being egocentric, but I think he was right about this point. At every level — from national to corporate etc. — when the top leader changes, things really do move noticeably in a new direction. It is just as true for capitalist democracies as it is for would-be Communist dictatorships or fascist ones either, or even monarchies.

In a way, all this is a bit surprising, considering the common contemporary belief that larger forces — such as “the market” or more complex economic, cultural or social evolution or “organizational learning” pretty much determine the direction of history. I share such beliefs to a considerable extent, and yet it has long been evident to me that the person “in charge” plays an outsize role. What I want to explore here is why this should be.

(I have another reason for thinking about leadership, which I will amplify in a later post: recent discussions with Michel Bauwens. He has formulated some important ideas about p2p (peer-to-peer) communities and their possibly huge role in a better future. On its face, p2p communities suggest leaderless ones. How well can such groupings really work? What are their benefits and what are their limitations? About that, more later, but back now to the question of why nations, etc., almost always seem to have single, dominant leaders. )


Let me offer another example: Spain around the time (1975) when the fascist dictator Franco, the Caudillo, was dying. He spent the last year or so of his near 40-year reign very ill, basically on his deathbed. By then he was much hated; the Spanish people longed for change. But he had to die, not just get weak, for that to happen. No one at all close to power dared go against him until he literally stopped breathing. Once that happened, his anointed successor, Prince Juan Carlos, who then became King according to Franco’s wishes, immediately set about becoming not an absolute but a constitutional monarch, which was not in accord with Franco’s plans. The country began a wave of liberalization which has not ended. Franco’s old deputies, though at first still highly placed, could not prevent this. Now the current government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero plans to uproot the last monuments to the Caudillo. That was obviously not Franco’s plan.

In functioning electoral democracies, change comes more frequently. Usually each head of state (or head of government — the correct title when there is a figurehead monarch or President who does not “govern”) is in office for under a decade, and usually has to face the voters after four or five years, if not sooner. Even then, the leader, as long as he or she stays in power, does determine certain essential aspects of the country’s overall direction. Within limits, to be sure. No leader can fully affect what the rest of the world does. No leader can suddenly rid a system or state of corruption or turn apathetic civil servants into strongly dedicated ones. No leader completely controls economic conditions nor technical or artistic creativity. No leader can control the weather. In a democracy, too the leader is restrained somewhat by the courts and the legislature. And so on.

But still, how does a leader lead? Why do we give one person that immense power? What would happen if we didn’t rely on such leaders? We could do without them, it seems. Switzerland does. It essentially has no head of state or government and hasn’t for centuries.

You might argue that Switzerland is a pretty conservative place, quite afraid of change. It didn’t fully grant women the vote until 1990; it only guarantees primary education to its children. When Hitler ruled Germany, Switzerland to its shame locked out Jewish refugees and even asked Hitler to put a J on Jew’s passports to make that lockout easier. It’s history of creativity is not very impressive, with few great artists in any field, for example. But three different language groups and several Christian denominations, along with a smattering of other religions seem to live in fair harmony. It has avoided external war for almost two centuries now, and internal war since 1848. Its (money) economy ranks very high in the world, with per capita GDP well ahead of any large countries such as the US. It now guarantees a very wide range of human rights. And, the trains run on time, without the necessity of any Mussolini.

The world possibly would work better if divided into a thousand leaderless Switzerlands. So why do we have leaders? Why, when we do have them; are they more than figureheads? Why can some of them, such as Franco, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, or George W. Bush retain so much influence and the power to shape destinies even when they have become very unpopular? How can they retain such power, at times, even when barely alive, as Franco did? How might the nature of such leadership evolve, and where is it headed in the attention era?

Consider a rather different example of leadership — the symphony conductor. The musicians in the orchestra quite often have the musical score right in front of them, so why can’t they just read it? (Even that begs a question: How would they decide what to play without a director? But surely they could devise a means of choosing, say by having the members of the orchestra take turns choosing the pieces for each concert. )

As everyone who likes symphonic music knows, the conductor plays a vital role because there are many subtle decisions to be made about exact tempos, pauses, and how loud or soft each group of players should be playing. The written score doesn’t exactly specify these things, and someone must judge them. Not merely someone, in fact. If the performance is to have overall coherence, that is if it is to be possible for the audience to align their minds [a concept I explain here] to the music, they can only each do this if the music itself, as played, is done according to the mind of one person. No two conductors will make exactly the same decisions, just as no two musicians would. Any good conductor will develop an set of underlying ideas and feeling about each piece to be performed, and the audience can then align with those. But since each audience member has one mind, if say every bar of music were conducted by a different person, what the hearer would hear would be very hard to pay attention to. We as attention payers can align with a single mind, but much less well with a multitude of minds each contributing at the same time. Each conductor of a particular orchestra will develop a different following among the public, a different group of people who can easily align with her and want to do so. (Also, the conductor generally decides what pieces will be played as well as how. Audiences identify with a conductor’s taste more easily than with all the varying tastes of the orchestra members, and intensify their fandom accordingly.)

That’s why we have conductors. Full-size orchestras who try to work without a conductor tend to lose their audiences. A symphony orchestra has tried, at least once, the Symphony of the Air, which originally had been the NBC Symphony under the great Arturo Toscanini, after he died. Smaller ensembles of various kinds, incidentally, can work without conductors, provided they have similar sensibilities and work together so long that they pretty much are all aligned with each other, as say string quartets. In jazz, a small group of players can satisfactorily take turns improvising. Even then they will not improvise at random but on the basis of a previously existing piece of music — usually by one single individual composer — which appeals to all of them. And in fact, even for very small jazz groups, there is often one who is thought of as the leader.

What does this have to do with a nation, a city, or even a corporation? After all, none of these have to be as coordinated as an orchestra is in performing, where the conductor matters from second to second. No nation is engaged primarily in unified expression; none is seeking to satisfy a common audience. Still, I think, the key to the need for leadership is given by the extent nations or their governments or companies do resemble orchestras. Do they have to (or want to) present a common face to the world? Do they have to (or want to) react decisively and coherently to events, internal or external? Do the citizens need or want at times to be pulled together in subtle ways?

The world is full of situations in which it at least seems decisions of all sorts must be made. The Swiss mostly evade this by carefully following past precedent, avoiding getting involved in external treaties, and at times, following what seem to be good advances in other countries. The Swiss may engage in a little yodeling, but as a country they do not much play to an an audience who would have to align to their expressions. If they did that they might need a leader who had a somewhat coherent policy, even if not the full-fledged control over the public that a symphony conductor has over his musicians.

So if —a big if — a country wants to engage in the world in a more intense way it does need a single mind behind it. This can evince itself in wars, sabre-rattling, colonizing, foreign aid initiatives, moves for peace, for disarmament, offers of new kinds of trade or trade treaties, proposed new immigration rules, making changes in the currency, new doctrines, seeking to be the venue for some international event, pontificating, etc. But all of these with a somewhat unified mindset. We might say that the country only exists as such to the extent that there is or can be though to be such a single mind. Otherwise it is just a random group of communities who happen to live within certain geographical boundaries. In today’s media-saturated world, a president or head of state who moves before the cameras gets attention, and the country as a whole then is more or less captive to that person’s actions and expressions, as for instance Bush, Chavez of Venezuela, Sarkozy of France, and much the same for most of the over two hundred countries in the world.

The single leader can also work internally, shaping the citizens’ sense of how they all fit together or should. The larger the country, it seems, the more a single leader, even an unpopular one, is necessary for this sense of coherence or unity. A majority may want to “throw the rascal out” but usually can only conceive of this in terms of putting someone else in the single office, someone with a distinctly idifferent personality and different promise.

Let me add that Switzerland is not the only example outside music of operating without one dominant leader. So did Revolutionary France under the Directorate, which lasted for just few years until taken over by Napoleon. Medium size and small law firms and very small collectives do not have single, dominant leaders, and possibly a few larger such partnerships exist. And of course, there are any number of more amorphous communities without definite leaders. But it evidently isn’t so easy unless aims and desires change.

Many and many a year ago….
In the distant past, even a few thousand years ago, kingdoms such as ancient Egypt were held together by images placed all over the country reminding people of the leader. Where there was writing, proclamations by this leader were sent throughout the kingdom and read aloud, or at times posted in public places. By the time of the Roman Empire, the emperor’s likeness was sculpted very realistically and placed prominently throughout the Empire; coins with similar images were minted and circulated. Similar kinds of things happened in other empires throughout the world. In the Middle Ages, in Europe, monarchs tended to move through their kingdoms demonstrating their existence even to the illiterate.

Today, of course, video images of the leader are seen everywhere , with new ones circulated more than daily. Candidates for the highest office become highly visible as well. As we see in the current race for the US Democratic Presidential nomination, very large groups of what we might as well call fans eagerly cohere to each side; the candidates have achieved even more than rock-star status. With the web, the fans can encourage each other to align more closely with their preferred candidate.

We don’t for the most part vote for polices, but for personality. In terms of specific policies, neither candidate is too precise about what she or he will do, neither is the Republican opponent. Yet we fully expect that things will be different depending on who wins. And, it would seem, the more difference a large number of us expect, the more difference there can be.

As with any star to whom we pay attention, we somewhat align our minds with those of the leader, whomever it is. In so doing we become different people than we were under the previous leader, though of course not all of us align to the same extent, and some tend to align against rather than with this leader.

“Aligning against” is a two -step process. If someone says to you “2 + 2 = 5” to be paying attention you have to form this thought in your own mind, but then you instantly compare it to what you are sure of, namely that 2 +2 = 4, and so reject the thought. If the same person keeps saying things which you find yourself rejecting, you may well begin more or less automatically to reject anything connected to that person even if it might otherwise seem innocuous in itself. You then view whatever that person says or does as false, duplicitous, hateful, stupid or some combination of these. Hitler was responsible for his hateful anti-Semitic policies; he also was the instigator of the original Volkswagen. In rejection of Hitler, many Jews would never buy this car.

The more a leader is “in your face” as is made possible by today’s media, the more sharply we must react to avoid aligning our thoughts and actions with his or hers. That helps lead to today’s political polarization. Such polarization becomes even stronger at a distance. “Inside the Beltway,” a variety of politicians engage in day to day business with one another, more or less as equals, not as stars. From a distance, attention is focused on just a few of them, and humanizing contacts are not present, so any antagonism will build and build. Today this is aided by the Internet, as I suggested already. Fans of one politician or another can support their champion and malign the other and his or her fans. Then, even those on the inside find they must play to that antagonism to keep the allegiance of their followers. If we do become fans of someone, or loyalty becomes more and more intense, unless we feel somehow betrayed.

However, to keep the focus and the loyalty, the political leader, or any other kind of leader, must keep doing or saying new things to hold active attention. Someone like the President of the United States has a huge press corps following him (so far, it’s a him) around; this press corps get attention when the President does, so they try to make even his most insignificant statement seem important. But this overemphasis on trivia can go only so far. The President to maintain leadership, must exercise it by more vigorous assertions and actions. The same is true for leaders of other countries, and for all other kinds of entities. At the same time, it is increasingly true that a leader must demonstrate a very distinct and outsize personality, a personality always on view as this leader constantly seeks and achieves the limelight with new actions, statements and policies.

As long as this leader is not in a coma and shows any signs of life, or, in a democracy. as long as the term of office has not ended, the leader retains a built in audience for any whisper of a remark. People who have been paying attention, will align to who the leader was at his or her height, rather than to the present decrepit reality, or even the supposed lame duck status.

All this assertion and activity can be dangerous. Is it worth maintaining coherence as a nation if that results in a collection of more and more assertive personalities on the world stage? On the other hand, without a single leader, how can a nation (or company or university or museum or even web community, or whatever) make substantive changes if necessary? How can new creative solutions to the world’s problems come into existence without single minds, single leaders somehow propelling them? Or would we be better off with less creativity, less leadership, less change? These are the questions that the world is increasingly, if unknowingly, forced to confront.

If we could do without leaders, prospective leaders cannot do without our wanting them. So they have a growing vested interest in exaggerating the kinds of situations and problems that would require a leader’s response. What would it take for us to just stop paying attention? For that to be effective, would almost everyone have to stop? Could we do that without strong leadership? Or could we perhaps build enough peer-to-peer communities that we don’t have time to listen or obey the would-be leaders’ clarion calls?