The leadership fetish

Consider the leader. Not the Leader, such as Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon, nor the pioneer such as Newton or Columbus. But consider instead the leader that we demand exist within every group, the mantle many aspire to take on. Consider  the appointed or elected, de facto or de jure leader in every organisation, from the smallest of groups to the largest of corporations, and ask “why do we exalt them so?”

There are exceptional figures in history and in the present blessed with charisma, acumen, and vision.  Good for them and lucky for us that they be installed (regardless of means) in positions of leadership where their talents might be harnessed for the benefit of both self and others. However, people being people (or perhaps just Singaporeans being Singaporeans), we now too often see the tragic farce of buffoons and nincompoops, lacking in the virtues of leadership, being shoehorned into positions of leadership and authority… to our chagrin, anguish, and a substantial amount of schadenfreude.

A disclaimer: There is very little (dare I say, none at all?) unbiased and trustworthy empirical evidence to back up most of the claims made within this post. The opinions in this post are just that: the author’s opinions, mostly shaped by personal interactions, observations of the world around himself, speculation, assumptions, and some degree of creative reimagining. Do not swallow wholesale (if you do, well, I’d have to conclude you might fall in the category of people elderly and polite British women would describe as “silly”. Also, I  can fix you up with one of my friends from Nigeria who has an offer you can’t possibly refuse). Rather, decide for yourself if the hypotheses submitted do in fact hold true in the social world you inhabit and, if finding them correct, commence weeping quietly for the tragic state of affairs you now see.

Right. Back to the topic at hand: what is the matter with our society (to be more accurate, the one I observe. But I’ll go on the assumption that it doesn’t differ too greatly from the one many of the people who will read this inhabit) that it is not only necessary but also desirable to mold every halfwit Tom, Dick, or Harry into a shape that, if squeezed hard enough (and with sufficient lubrication), will fit into the throne of leadership?

To begin, let us ask how and why we indoctrinate our young and brainwash ourselves into aspiring towards being a leader. Yes, we do see often enough those examples of truly great leaders: demi-godlike figures with wisdom, power, authority, vision, and persuasiveness. We respect them, and we aspire to be like them, and we convince ourselves and our children to take small steps towards that goal, to snatch up every opportunity to lead and to lord it over our peers. We see parents urging children to “take up leadership positions in school”, we see university/scholarship applications asking for “leadership positions”, we hear youth described as “future leaders” throughout their adolescence, and even into their time serving in the armed forces.

However, you (that is, an overwhelming majority of people) will not become one of the exalted few, by virtue of the fact that there can only be that many Prime Ministers, Presidents, Kings, CEOs, etc.  And since new countries are just that much harder to find nowadays, and the chances of heading a multibillion-dollar multinational company are slimmer than that of being eaten by a shark, Tom, Dick, or Harry are odds on not going to have the opportunity to do much leading beyond managing a handful of underlings under the glare of fluorescents in an overbright office, dreaming of the day (that will never come) he gets his promotion and trades in his PDA for a real personal assistant.

And yet, we persist in elevating the status of minor roles, and we celebrate the appointment of petty leadership, when a group can function just as well, or even better, without the jostling, the politics, and the passive-aggressive competition for the spot of top dog. We have idolised great leaders, but through our very desire to learn and to share in that glory we have inadvertently  diluted and perverted it. Instead of attempting to emulate the virtues of great leaders, we merely fetishize the idea of being the “leader-person”.

So, the next time someone tells you to lead a project, a team, or a group of potentially homicidal barely-out-of-their-teens conscript soldiers, ask yourself if you are capable and willing, or merely a functionary for an institution that demands rigid hierarchies, or if you have fallen prey to the social structure’s fetish of taking strange pleasure in being leader-in-name, regardless of true capability, drive, inspiration, or belief in the cause.

Edit: So, yes, I do believe that if you don’t believe in a cause you shouldn’t be participating in it, let alone leading it. Also, yes, it’s a tragic state of affairs that, human as we are, we find ourselves often in situations not of our own choosing doing things not exactly as we might desire. It’s a tragedy of our existence; to bastardise Rousseau, we are born (and meant) to live free, but everywhere we are in chains not of our choosing. And what choice do we really have, when the options are to accept it stoically, live as a hermit, or to grow disillusioned, jaded, and insane?


4 Responses to “The leadership fetish”

  1. melodily Says:


    (Also, fetishize? Cool word)

  2. xian Says:

    And the automatic google ad advertising tailor-made leadership training solutions just puts the most deliciously ironic icing on the cake

  3. Gerard Says:

    Have you considered the notion that leadership skills can be nurtured and honed; or that leadership potential is something that is dormant and typically resides silently in every individual, waiting for The Day it could finally break free? Perhaps not, but there exists a widespread belief in societies across the world that it is so. Maybe not every little kid under the sun possess the same amount of leadership potential (assuming such potential does exist in quantifiable amounts), but you are really more likely to identify true leaders by encouraging (or in your opinion, brainwashing, perhaps) more kids to compete to take on leadership roles, and subsequently guide them and observe from the side, than, say, waiting for some natural, born-to-be-a-leader talent emerge from some obscure corner.

    There are plenty of people all over the world who do not possess your full range of ideal leadership qualities, but are nevertheless competent enough to lead, or at least require more training to improve on their shortcomings. For instance, some people may have that extraordinary sense of acumen, to prepare their team for crises ahead, and to seize opportunities before they arise. But that may not be bold enough, perhaps, to speak with gusto and confidence before his people, or the interpersonal skills. But these skills can be honed, or so I believe. I agree with you in that one should not take the role of a leader if he does not believe in the cause he is fighting for, but I wouldn’t mind giving him the chance to lead a small team even if he doubts his own capabilities, because the leadership potential of a person is a very complex thing. To judge one’s leadership qualities based on his capabilities as a follower may shed some light on his skills, but many people fail to realise that it is only one side of the picture, and can be very arbitrary at times.

    Anyway, it’s perfectly natural for people to glorify leaders for being leaders and be obsessed with leadership qualities per se, and not the virtues good leaders normally possess, because ultimately it is only the leaders who have these traits who are glorified. Mere followers, unfortunately, do not, for the simple reason that the success of any organisation is always attributed to the leaders. Until we start assigning more credit to the random citizenry than to the leader, will our society stop placing so high a premium on becoming leaders.

    Oh, and anyway, raising the example of universities and scholarship providers is, IMHO, not really a good one. Now that universities are no longer considered as mere leaning institutions, but rather, more like pre-professional training grounds that are designed to mould future PMETs, aka leaders, they will naturally go for leaders-to-be. Ditto scholarship providers; if they are going to have to pay thousands of dollars for your education, you’d better be someone who will reciprocate their kindness by contributing significantly back to the organisation, and there is no better way to this than becoming the next leader who will chart a path to success for the organisation.

    • jx1992n Says:

      @ Gerard
      I think I understand where you’re coming from, but correct me if I’m wrong. You suggest that the leadership attributes I’ve mentioned (and certainly others I’ve missed) may, in some people, flower naturally, but that for the most part it is possible and even necessary to train leadership ability, or develop potential into capability.

      I don’t disagree. No doubt the skills that we term leadership can be trained, and, as you mention, it is probably a good thing that someone who may be skilled in one area but lacking in another be encouraged, or even tasked, to take up a position of leadership in order to develop himself, no matter how much self-doubt he may suffer from.

      What drove me in writing this post, which I may not have communicated clearly enough, is the ceaseless driving of people (especially the young) to take on leadership at every opportunity. You’re right in saying that it’s natural for people to glorify leaders, because they are seen to be the architects of success. However, my gripe is not with the adulation we give them, but the mindless aspiration to be like them, and the mistaken belief that everyone can.

      I would say that my chagrin is twofold. The first being the perpetuation of the lie that everyone can be a great leader, and the second being the shoehorning of inept people, repeatedly and against all common sense, into positions of leadership.

      Regarding the first, I agree with your point, but I believe that a distinction between a manager, a leader, and a Leader is necessary when we encourage people to take on leadership. Some of the skills that you say can be trained make for good managers, but there are other capabilities that are exceedingly difficult to learn, and that require some sort of innate or intuitive grasp, that makes the Leader. By all means, encourage people to improve their communication, thinking, or planning skills, but don’t perpetuate the myth that with enough hard work everyone can be a Churchill.

      Regarding the second (and this is a little trickier), I think my complaint is driven partially by a frustration at seeing people in way over their heads, and as a result screwing both themselves and everyone under them over. By affirming the fact that some (even a majority) of people can be trained in the skills you’ve mentioned, we must also accept that there will remain a number who cannot, and who are not cut out for leadership or not willing to take on leadership. As such, we ought not to defy all logic and constantly fetishize leadership as something everyone should aspire to.

      PS: Thank you for your reply, I think you’re almost completely correct, but I also think it doesn’t discount from my two main points (which may not have been clear enough the first time around).

      As for the thing about universities and scholarship providers, when I mentioned leadership positions, what I meant to suggest was that although these positions do reflect to a small degree an applicant’s potential to be a leader, most of the time students clamour for these positions as padding to their applications and boosts to their attempts to claim a prestigious (and financially rewarding) scholarship. When we talk about leadership positions, it’s no longer really about leadership, but how we have fetishized leadership, and these positions, into the measure of a successful or capable person.

      (Although, to be fair, I concede that many of the capabilities that make a good leader coincide with the qualities that these scholarship boards look for. So, these boards should be more interested in “a short description of what you achieved as a leader” rather than a mere listing of the positions you took on, possibly as an absentee leader or figurehead, leaving the work to others only to claim the credit at the last minute. In schools with “high-flyers” heading two clubs and members in three others, it might very well happen.)

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