Personal responsibility implies that we should not be dependent on leaders. We
should be able to lead ourselves: to devise a system of government where all voices
are equally weighted and where there is no concentration of power and hence no
possibility of abuse.
The practical reality of human society, though, is that for historical and other
reasons we do have a leadership-based structure. This structure dates to our earliest
forms of social organization, and it inevitably leads to a wide variety of abuse.
The development of social institutions fueled role-specialization and the need
for leaders. Initially, those people best equipped to satisfy the demands of the
job filled these positions. Military groups were led by the best warriors; governments,
economic institutions and religions by those people best suited intellectually
who could design more complex social systems and/or solve the problems
they created, who had the inclination to be good at trading, and who were imaginative
enough to create good stories about the origins and mysteries of life.
In other words, in our earliest social groupings positions of leadership were
allocated on the basis of merit. People chose to follow those individuals who
through their skills and knowledge demonstrated that they were the most able.
This type of leadership is a reflection of the social objective to promote excellence.
We believe it is appropriate to reward people who excel, with positions of trust
Unfortunately, the merit-based system didn't last long. Role specialization quickly
led to nepotism, and it is still with us today.
The reason for this is that leadership is inherently corrupting. In a dictatorship,
leaders obviously govern only for themselves and their cronies, but this happens
in democracies as well. In a democracy the leaders are supposed to serve the public,
not their personal interests and agendas. Many leaders though find the temptation
irresistible to use their power for personal gain, including to help their children.
Leaders also promote the interests of their former business enterprises and occupations.
For example, in the United States both George Bush and Dick Cheney were oilmen
before obtaining office, and their governance has clearly been preferential to
the energy industry. (This helps explain why environmental issues are minimized
or ignored; many elected officials come from the extractive industries.) Similarly,
officials can be corrupted by promises of lucrative employment following their
Society also has a tendency to rely on leaders because of its structural foundation
in competition. Leaders are responsible for social decision-making, and individuals
who exhibit great skill at this can help one group prevail over another. This
is clearly apparent in the competition of war, where strong leadership regularly
provides an advantage, in some cases even sufficient to overcome inferiority in
ones number of troops and weapons. The benefits of leadership are also obvious
in economic competition, as companies with strong leaders succeed and those without
What this illustrates is that a social dependence on leaders has many pitfalls,
the first of which is simply poor leadership. For instance, many countries regularly
repeat the same types of mistakes. The reason this happens is that while the countries
may be the same, the officials are different. New officials fall into the same
types of traps as their predecessors. This reflects the fact that we only learn
from the mistakes that we personally make.
Leaders commonly suffer from egotism. They do tend to be our best and brightest,
but this is no guarantee that they will do a great job. What happens when you
have a high level of intelligence is that you realize you can understand things
better than other people. Because of this, you tend to want to dominate, to see
that things are done the right way your way. But in this process it is
easy to forget your own fallibility: that you can, and do, make mistakes. Eight
or nine times out of ten you might be right, but not the others. But you tend
to push things through as if you were right, all the time. Also, you forget that
other people are not so dumb and uneducated after all, and that they can solve
problems, too. And, if it is a situation in which they are personally involved,
they have a right to be included in the decision-making process.
Through such arrogance, it is easy for leaders to forget that they are servants
to democracy, and also to author horrific social blunders.
A related flaw with leadership occurs when individuals surround themselves with
unquestioning and sycophantic staffs. This isolates them from alternative viewpoints
and conflicting evidence. But good decision-making formulating the best
policy requires consideration of all information available.
Leadership is not an academic exercise. Because of its consequences, it inevitably
involves great pressure. Leaders have to be able to handle this pressure well.
If they dont, they tend to abuse their subordinates. Ironically, though,
society accepts such abusive leaders, if they are able to get the job done. (This
is another ends and means example.)
The greatest temptation with political leadership is financial corruption. Individuals
take advantage of their authority to enrich their families, and this wealth in
turn is used by their descendents to perpetuate the familys political power.
Similarly, individuals fund their election campaigns with the donations of special
interests, and then govern for the benefit of those interests rather than on behalf
of the general public.
The scale of financial corruption that now exists around the world is incredible.
Ordinary people are arrested for shoplifting, while officials who have stolen
millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars walk free. The basic types of
corruption include policy corruption, where officials pass laws that
benefit their private interests (such as by reducing taxes on businesses in which
they are investors); and corruption in government contracts, where bids are rigged
and bribes paid.
Nepotism and corruption have combined to create a privileged, leadership class.
This is a common failing in democracies around the world: only individuals with
great wealth, and in many cases whose parents have also been politicians, have
a chance to win office.
An even more severe problem with leadership occurs with individuals who work to
undermine democracy. Some elected officials attempt to transform themselves into
dictators by ignoring the publics wishes, and their own campaign promises,
and by working to destroy the societys democratic institutions so that they,
or their political parties, cannot be removed from power.
These cases also illustrate a deeper issue with leaders: only individuals who
aspire to such absolute power tend to be selected. Some people are born leaders,
in the sense that they are the most able. But other individuals strive for the
top and will do anything to get there. Leadership in modern society is subject
to natural law, and traits such as ruthlessness are at least as important as capability.
The deepest problem of all is that we fail to distinguish between leaders and
teachers. Real leaders dont in fact tell people what to do. Instead, they
help educate the public, to make better decisions on their own. And through doing
this they organize consensus, on what is best for everyone.
This is the only type of leadership that enables the participative decision-making
of real democracy, and through which it is possible to escape from competition
and natural law.
© Roland O. Watson 2008