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 and authority.

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 terms.

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 one’s number of troops and weapons. The benefits of leadership are also obvious in economic competition, as companies with strong leaders succeed and those without fail.

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 don’t, 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 family’s 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 public’s wishes, and their own campaign promises, and by working to destroy the society’s 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 don’t 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