In Praise of the Unboss.

Posted by jlubans on March 21, 2016

Caption: John Adams (1735 – 1826). The Declaration of Independence in background.

A friend alerted me to Joshua Rothman’s lengthy (synonym: New Yorker) commentary on the leadership industry. (I guess my blog is one not-for-profit tittle in that biz!) His essay, “Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules” explores leaderly concepts and such, along with the theorists’ latest theories. And, unavoidably, writing in the New Yorker, he tends to mention the bad leading on one side of the political spectrum more than on the other. Leaders, regardless of political leanings, either resist or succumb to the temptations that come with being anointed leader. It is a question of character. Do you keep your equilibrium and an objective sense of humor about who you are or do you begin to believe the sycophantic praise?
Regardless, I think you will find the article quite fascinating, an enlightening ramble among the thorns and rushes in the bog we’ve termed leadership, often confused with the person who helps us help ourselves out of a bad spot or who remains – along with us - mired therein.
I have a True or False question on my final exam: “Leadership is not a person: it is a relationship between the leader and follower.”
I think all too often we forget the follower part of the leadership diagram. (The word follower does not appear anywhere in Rothman’s 4200 words.) Without followers what are “leaders”? If you will, followers are the Sancho Panzas to the Don Quixotes of the world. Imagine the Don without a Sancho and you’ve got the worst kind of boring narcissism.
My book could more aptly have been titled “Following from the Middle” instead of “Leading from the Middle”. It is, after all, a book on followership, the good kind, in which the follower has all the qualities we ascribe to a good leader, including independent and critical thinking with a propensity for action. One might say, location is the only difference between the good follower and the good leader, especially the unboss.
Serendipitously, Rothman’s essay introduced me to West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet’s anthology: “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers.” I expect, when I peruse her collection, I’ll find a few humanist gems to use in my Democratic Workplace classes.
Samet quotes from John Adams, America’s second president. In a letter written to a friend he states, “that there was something both undemocratic and unwise in the lionization of leadership.” More specifically to my notions of the unboss and freedom at work, Adams writes that people ought to “consider themselves as the fountain of power.
Remember Abraham Lincoln’s seemingly quixotic,“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
In a sentence - echoed two centuries later by Kurt Lewin when he concluded “Democracy he has to learn” – Adams urges that the people “must be taught to reverence themselves, instead of adoring their servants, their generals, admirals, bishops, and statesmen” (and bosses, I’d add). Rothman discerningly concludes, “It can be dangerous to decide that you need to be led.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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