An apocalyptic view of leadership (v2)

My clients and colleagues know where I am coming from in my leadership development work – I have a strong interest in personal growth, authenticity, the spiritual dimension to work. I worked in the empowerment industry for 20 years, and trained as a psychotherapist.

Why the preamble? Well, I’m about to write something that may shock a few of you. You see, this morning I saw a message on a forum that nicely summarised the model of leadership that we’ve preached for many years – the leader in touch with themselves, highly relational, empowering of others – both employees and customers – and so on. But it worried me. This stuff has been promoted by myself and others for a long time. It has been promoted for millenia. If it was all right, surely evolution by natural selection would have made it the predominant model for leaders throughout the world? But it hasn’t.

Here’s my response:

The list of leadership behaviours and values that we promote, bears a strong resemblance to the kind of list that someone reading Tom Peters books back in the 1980s or Robert Greenleaf’s in the 1970s would have seen. Indeed, I’m sure that Dale Carnegie would identify with them from the 1930s.

So what’s new, and why do we keep needing to preach the old stuff?

In the early 1990s, the US Air Force conducted a very impressive study into future worlds, specifically those around 2025. The material is all in the public domain. They identified three global trends and used these to extrapolate a number of scenarios. The three axes were:

  • The rate of growth of the growth in technology
  • The polarisation of global power
  • The focus of US military activity – ie whether it was domestic or international
  • The scenarios developed showed that under many conditions we were moving slowly and steadily towards a less-caring, more militaristic, and even apocalyptic world – whether dominated by feudal barons or martial law.

    Out of this came many insights. Among them was the recognition that our perception of many of the practices that we assume to be static – and I’d suggest leadership skills would be one of those – needs to shift. Just because we have grown accustomed to the kind of emotionally benign leadership models spouted by Carnegie, Greenleaf and others since the emergence of management from the industrial revolution dark ages, doesn’t mean that life is going to be so easy for much longer.

    Since the movie Wall Street hit the screens, we have had images of a less humanistic approach to management portrayed to us. Gecko wasn’t the first of his kind – it was the proximity of his character to the real experience of followers that made it so close to the bone.

    The factors identified by the Airforce 2025 project are leading slowly but relentlessly towards a midway point between a couple of their scenarios – a world dominated by a few axial powers (based on powerful commercial empires rather than democratically elected ones) and attacked by growing, but only loosely coordinated, terrorist/subversive forces. This is why the US is seemingly so obsessed with the imposition of democracy and the eradication of Al Khaida outside their own territories. Sooner or later domestic terrorism will prevent them from expending their efforts there, and we will see the consolidation of Eastern commercial influences focused around China and the northern Pacific Rim.

    Interestingly, in the UK a disproportionate part of the population suffering from severe mental health issues and being forced into homelessness are from military backgrounds. The same is true in the US. In the US, post Vietnam, a large number of highly trained ‘killing machines’ returned home unable to adapt to a gentler society. Many of these adopted lifestyles that were self-sufficient and kept them on the perimeter of society and social intercourse. Many of the Al Khaida followers promoting a terrorist campaign, are said to have been trained to respond as guerillas to the threat of Russian military actions a couple of decades ago. It is from this environment that domestic terrorism may well emerge. Our present military efforts are likely to be fuelling the very force in our own countries that we are trying to eradicate elsewhere.

    In this militaristic world, I agree that there will always be leaders who have the soft skills that make them NICE people to follow, but I think it is time we gave up trying to force that model down the throats of a future generation of prospective leaders. The world in which they are going to have to operate is a far harsher, far more violent, far less ‘rational’ one than you and I would like or have experienced.

    Leaders then will command loyalty through ruthlessness, manipulation, and providing the basic physical needs (especially security) of their followers and their families by being constantly on their guard against attack. We already see this model in eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other communities. It is not a million miles from the environment of the early 20th century in Italy and Chicago, and later in Northern Ireland.

    Let’s stop kidding ourselves that softly, softly, touchy-feely leadership is going to work into the future, and start exploring why it is that some of us want to perpetuate these approaches when the survival of the next generation depends on a far tougher approach. It is interesting that few of, even, today’s leaders join this bandwagon – I don’t hear Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Hurd or Steve Jobs preaching employee empowerment, customer focus or emotional intelligence, and they aren’t exactly an ethnically diverse group are they?

    It’s time for a tough revision of our thinking and a very different approach to preparing thr future generation of both leaders and followers.

    There now, I wonder if that shocked you?

    I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
    For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

    Best wishes

    Working behind the scenes, helping leaders achieve things they never dreamt they could


    1. Are you serious?

      Businesses in knowledge industries and complex services still need employee engagement, contribution and commitment in order to compete.

      Corporate figureheads don't talk about empowerment because (a) the word is a worthless cliche now (b) they are talking to a constituency of customers and investors, who'd misinterpret such talk as weak leadership and wasted resources.

      What I think is needed is a continued striving towards a balance between rational, responsible decision making and winning and keeping hearts and minds of those who actually deliver the service and innovation.

      There's never one right answer to that balance and I believe the type of organisation has far more influence than the phase of the economic cycle.

    2. Hello Dave.

      Thanks for reading my blog and for your comment. Am I serious? On the one hand, sadly, I think we do have to change our expectations. On the other, I shall continue to try to turn the tide back in a sense, by preaching authenticity and all that goes with it.

      Thanks again, Graham.

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