History is nothing but the realization of dreams of a few exceptional individuals. It’s an interesting idea to entertain, even if you are inclined to disagree. According to “The Great Man” theory (which perhaps should be updated to “The Great Person” theory), highly influential people — through their vision, charisma and intelligence — wield power,over humans or nature, to bend reality to their will. These individuals change forever the course of human events. Indeed, history is told through the eyes of the victor: the impact of such great persons are measured according to their ultimate success.
Although leaders are powerless on their own, it is their vision of a designated destination for their people, what needs to be done and why, that directs the story. The masses are the ones that drive the action. Indeed, at some points in history, the masses seize the reins to become the playwrights themselves, the most famous and bloody example, perhaps, being the French Revolution. But could the storming of the Bastille have materialised without the philosophical preparation of Rousseau or, for that matter, the Jeffersonian inspiration of the American Revolution? And can the revolutionary cycle be considered complete without consideration of the consequent rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte?
The powerful impactof leaders manifests itself, for good and for evil, throughout most cultures in every period of history. The hierarchical structure of human organization is seen from small tribes all the way up to modern superstates such as China, with a population of over 1.3 billion. The power of leadership, whether wieldedwith ill-intent or for the betterment of humanity, has played an undeniably huge role in shaping society as we know it today.
As technology influences society, as knowledge becomes universally accessible, and as we learn ever more about ourselves as humans, there is an ever greater need to understand and develop ways of more effective, and more virtuous, leadership. Not only in the realms of the technical are paradigms are shifting, but also in the realms of culture and the humanities. Aware of the transformative and history-altering effect that leadership can have on the world, painfully learned in centuries past, leaders of the 21st century must remember the history of failed and misguided leadership or be condemned, as Santayana famously wrote, to repeat it.. Armed with that awareness, and the urgency of the current moment — in terms of social, political and ecological crises, we submit that the development of a new culture of leadership is imperative for humanity.
To explain why we need a new leadership culture, we first need to examine the origins of leadership – only thus may we gain clarity into why things are the way they are. What we know from the study of Anthropology is that humans are fundamentally a social species, similar to other primates with whom we share genetic kinship. Our social nature is built on the fact that our offspring have long maturation periods compared with other animals. It takes human children much longer than other mammals to reach a state of adult independence.
In addition to this, our larger and more complex brains have in turn led to more complex emotional circuitry which allows us to not only to reason but also to form strong social relationships. We see evidence of other animals bonding, expressing love and being compassionate, but nothing comparable to what we possess.
With the longer time it takes to raise children and the social infrastructure of our brains, the destiny of humanity as a social species was sealed. With our social-biological foundation and the need to survive in harsh environments, we bonded together and formed small groups. These groups united to form clams and then tribes and, with the advent of agriculture and the industrial revolution, cities, nation-states and empires. We believe that the latest technological revolution has brought us to a new reckoning.
As groups become larger, there evolved naturally a trend towards hierarchy and leadership. There are a few reasons for this:
1) A chaotic world and external threats demand unity and leadership. History teaches us that if one group is organized and well-led, they are more likely to conquer a more divided and rudderless group. In times of crisis and confusion, people naturally look to strong figures who can help them survive – and thrive. When these individuals can also provide a compelling explanation of the world and project a compelling vision for the future they become elevated as leaders of their people.
2) In a world of scarcity, the division of labour allows for unparalleled productivity gains. But this division comes at a price – this complex structure necessitates that somebody will coordinate, represent and facilitate the activities of the group. These are the leaders who are best positioned to leverage their knowledge and power to exploit gains for their people through trade, politics and commerce.
3) Dominant males seek to assert themselves over others to access both mating opportunities and resources for themselves. This behaviour is seen not only in humans, but also in many other primates. This dominance also acts as a form of law and order: the threat of violence combined with a known hierarchy keeps the peace. But against this dominance, over the past century, has arisen a competing force led by strong women. Equipped with differing biological inheritances and emotional-social characteristics, the power of feminism, representing more than half of humanity, has been making itself felt with undeniable insistence.
The factors described here that have given rise to the concept of leadership have been birthed in a time long past. Looking at the origins of leadership, we can see why it was a necessary concept, but we can also recognize that like many other things, it has its basis in the primitive, core functions of human life. From that we can begin to draw a line towards the modern day and see what remnants of our past are affecting leadership in family, business and society.
The above reasons are likely the root causes of leadership, but as complex human society evolves, so does the hierarchy and the motivations behind it. These trends – combined with biological traits such as the survival instinct, fear and greed – have created a leadership culture that has evolved around three overlapping focal forces: power, profit and ego.
These three aspects of leadership correspond to their root causes, with some crossover between the three. These factors have been at play – all the way back from the origins of civilization 5,000 years ago to the medieval, renaissance, industrial and modern eras. Through the lens of these three forces, we can make sense of the actions and motivations of leaders past and present, and perhaps grasp the evolving shape of leadership for the future.
Before we evolved international market-based trade, resource acquisition and utilisation was more a matter of power and organisation. Whoever wielded the biggest stick, was smarter and more organised, had a better chance of surviving intra- and inter-group conflict. The desire to aggregate and assert power explains most of political and military history, much of which has inspired contemporary leadership ideas. Simply put: leaders are the ones who lead their peoples to power.
This aspect of leadership is rooted in conflict. There is an existential threat to the existence or prosperity of a group. Only through unification and strong leadership can the threat be defeated. This external threat typically is another group, but it could also be a religion or ideology as was the case in the Crusades and the Cold War. In any case, the leader creates a narrative and a vision of the future which provides an explanation for the problem and projects a “promised land” in relation to current conditions.
The leadership class is in a constant struggle for power. One of the most effective ways to gain influence has been to tap into one of our primal emotions: fear. It is the fear that we may lose our position as a group, that our loved ones will be harmed or killed, or that our way of life will be challenged. Playing on these group fears has allowed leaders to rally people behind causes that have often had detrimental outcomes. This is not to say that there are no genuine reasons to fear. But leaders manipulating fears to gain and maintain power is a playbook that has been and is currently being used by demagogues across the world.
With the advent of mercantilism and capitalism, the power structure realised that it benefited them more to focus on trade rather than conquest. War is destructive, costly and unpredictable. Setting up systems of global trade, on the other hand, allows people to flourish, particularly those who know how to turn a profit. Trade was a compelling dynamic that could compete with military force within the power structure of nations: global trade and the profit motive.
The leaders of this new paradigm created the idea of the company, one of the first being the Dutch East India Company. Essentially, this was a group of people who would work together around the world to create and develop profitable enterprise. As global trade was then based largely on sea voyages, there was an element of risk: pirates, war, bad weather and disease. For these reasons, there was no guarantee of a profit. It made sense, therefore, that the rewards from such a risky enterprise would flow primarily to those who took the greatest chances – the people who funded the venture.
This risk-profit dynamic is one of the underlying factors driving the management and leadership culture to this day. This is still the model we follow when structuring and thinking about business. From this profit motive, there are three primary factors which influence modern management and leadership styles.
A remnant of our leadership tradition involves a factor to which each individual can relate. Not all people are driven by an insatiable hunger for power or profit, but almost everybody at some deep level craves acceptance, recognition and a higher status in society. The resulting benefits are a higher quality of life, safety and greater self-esteem.
The elevation of a person’s status in a hierarchy may come with benefits but, if left unchecked, this social competition can have an adverse effect on a person’s ego. On the one hand, they may always feel that the grass is greener on the neighbour’s lawn. On the other hand, they may begin to feel that they are superior to others, endowed by right with a special status, looking down on those who hold lower positions, have achieved less, or were less fortunate. In modern organizations this can manifest in many ways.
For instance, you find managers who don’t take into consideration the advice of their employees. They may be of the opinion that they are the ones best fit to decide how things should be run, and that the opinions of others don’t count, or count for less. They may also become combative to people who potentially threaten their exalted status. A manager or leader who feels threatened by subordinates who may be smart or outspoken may take steps to neutralize them – even to the detriment of their organization as a whole.
To ask if we have a crisis of leadership is not controversial. As with many other aspects of our lives, we operate according to a model which evolved in an era that is becoming ever less relevant today. We have built-int biological firmware designed for an environment quite different than the one we confront in the twenty-first century. We have no alternative to working with it, but we need to update our operating system to adapt to the changes and challenges we face today. The traditional leadership paradigm of power, profit and ego has produced a plethora of harmful consequences:
The last two issues outlined here are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs who are building and scaling organizations. If wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, who will be the people that buy your product? The capacity to access wealth and channel its distribution has allowed capitalism to flourish, but this is also proving to be one of its capitalism’s great bottlenecks. Venture capitalists in particular need to take into account the ability to reach a broader range of consumers than was true in the past. They should consider a company’s failure to do so successfully as a primary risk factor.
In a similar vein, as global markets become more saturated and competitive, recruiting and harnessing the power of people is likely to prove to be a decisive competitive advantage. This includes greater sensitivity to the differing nature and needs of the female half of the workforce, and its pursuit of a more equitable share of leadership positions. Only the collective cooperation, efficiency, diversity, and innovation of your team will empower your enterprise to fend off larger well-funded competitors and achieve what other entrepreneurs cannot.
Doing so requires a paradigm shift in how leaders think and act – a leadership style that is not yet so prevalent, but one which we can cultivate through our initiatives and investments. As opposed to the old-world forces of power, profit, and ego, we can posit a new hierarchy of values which are more aligned to the evolving environment of 21st century societies and economies. In the next part, we will talk about how an empathetic leadership style can transform your business and develop a greater understanding of a new leadership paradigm that innovators, investors, and corporate partners can embrace for their own self-interest and for the collective good of our connected world.
Drs. Loes Fokker is Chief Culture Officer of the Argo Venture Studio. She evolves the consciousness of leaders and facilitates team-based growth that empowers groups to become high performance teams.