On a Leader

First of all, this is a very, very reactionary article. It seeks to overturn the lessons given in The Prince. That said, I do think it's relevant and important, and I think I have some points nailed down. To some people, they may seem blindingly obvious, but I've come up with them and decided to articulate them precisely because some people seem not to have gotten the memo.

Secondly, this article is about leadership in any context - leader of a country, leader of a coalition, school prefect, someone trying to organise a ragtag bunch of misfits...you name it, I'm trying to write for that context. Exception goes for dictators so evil it's stupid.

What are leaders for, whatever name they go by? The answer's simple and it's partially in the name: the job of a leader is to lead, and to lead well. It's a nice little phrase, but it means very little on its own and I'd like to provide clarification.

A leader is there to lead. It seems fairly obvious, but a lot of people don't seem to understand this. Leaders are there to exercise power and make genuine, meaningful contributions, not to act as some kind of human window dressing. What matters is how they get subordinates through a situation, not how well-presented they look or how popular they are. Interestingly, schoolteachers seem to confuse actual leadership ability with being neatly turned out according to school guidelines and the population as a whole seems to confuse actual leadership ability with effective popularity-winning tricks.

A leader should care about their subordinates. Again, you'd expect this to be obvious, but we have quite the host of oppressive regimes on this planet who seem to be ignoring the message, and I'm just mentioning the bigger players. Power for its own sake is not worth it: it's only worth it if that power can be used to exalt other human beings. That said, this doesn't involve posturing: working at a charity shop as a summer job or volunteering at a shelter to help babies with leukaemia, while both quite worthy, probably don't compare to someone who worked out an entire theory of leadership but can't go anywhere with it due to being involved with other things (such as having lots and lots of work). Why, you may ask? Working with people, even for a worthy cause, is not enough on its own to make a leader - it makes for a productive person, but not necessarily someone who can lead others. Working out complex theories and doing abstract reasoning aren't necessarily enough for leadership either, but they do prove that the person is smart and capable of finding rules and patterns where they're normally difficult to see.

A leader should be smart. This should go without saying, and yet we still get idiots in politics. I'm not talking about genuinely intelligent people who make mistakes: running a country is a difficult, demanding and largely unrewarding business. I am, however, talking about people like George Bush, Hitler (he was amazing with propaganda, but not great with governance or military strategy, despite trying to be involved in both) and any number of extremist nutcases who think they can manage millions of people. Getting back on track, when I say "smart" I don't mean "cultured". Being cultured does not really do wonders for one's understanding of problems. Being creative, resourceful, insightful and quick-thinking, however - all of those things are what I mean by "smart", and all of these things are needed to solve complex problems with many variables and no real answer - in other words, problems in real life.

A leader shouldn't be afraid to go against the grain. Leaders are there to LEAD, not to follow, and if higher-ups have put idiotic policies in place or issued idiotic commands - why, then, smartness and common sense should win out against blindly obeying rules. I think this the most problematic for people who are already leaders in some way or another: appointing someone who questions rules is shooting yourself in the foot. You'd only do it if you had some kind of death wish for your establishment. And yet I think these people are the ones we need most: people who care less about rule and law than they do about actual justice and morality, people who are ready to break these stupid rules and laws for the sake of other people. I've met a couple of people who are willing to take on that kind of person, but only at my school and only for a position I later discovered was very limited - and that person (there was only one) later left.

So, at the end of a not-very-exhaustive list (I wasn't trying to provide a dream leader, just a general guideline), a "good leader" would take an active role instead of acting as window dressing, would genuinely care about subordinates, would be smart and would screw the rules to do what's right. Considering the kind of people we have in positions of authority right now - any position of authority - I might have been wrong about this being a general guideline. Instead, it reads more like someone's wish-list, the kind of leader some wish existed but doesn't. This is depressing.

I have a couple more things to say. Firstly, those leaders do exist - or more precisely, the people with the potential to be those leaders do exist. There are smart, active, caring people around and waiting to be the next leader, but they probably won't be. Maybe they're not pretty or dim-witted enough to be used as a simple extension of authority, or maybe the way they think or act makes them unpopular and therefore unelectable. Maybe their refusal to follow rules or suck up to people means they won't be appointed to anything resembling a good position. Maybe they've just become disillusioned with politics and authority and don't think anything will ever get done. And, if the current situation where popularity, despotism, stupidity and ass-kissing are all rewarded one way or another continues, they'll be right. More than ever, that's not just a great shame - these people deserve positions and rewards befitting their ability - but a great mistake on our part. The climate is warming and running away, the oceans are acidifying, radioactive waste is leaking into the water and even normal waste is piling up, we're running out of the material we need to sustain our civilisation, we're starting yet another hate campaign in addition to the ones we already had, we're clearing land that could be used to grow actual food so we can add ethanol to petrol (instead of, say, using algae to make biofuel, which doesn't encroach on land used for food crops) when the world population is 7 billion, rising, and likely to crash...you know, if I were to list all the ways humanity are screwed on one atom each, I think I'd run out of atoms before I ran out of things to list. The point is that now more than ever, we need people who are smart, effective and capable of breaking protocol to get something done - we need the people who could lead but won't, rather than the people who would lead but can't. With them, we have a ghost of a chance at getting something done, but without them, we have nothing. Bye-bye, civilisation.