Choosing Leaders

Posted by jlubans on September 20, 2016

Caption: Underway.

How do we choose leaders? There’s an array of techniques – executive appointment, random turn-taking, committee, etc. - but it is only on a rare occasion – even in democratic workplaces - when subordinates or followers choose the boss.
One of the highlights of my drive this August from East to West, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast was taking back roads – staying off the interstates - that paralleled the Oregon Trail, the path taken, from 1843-1870s, by some 200,000 people striving for a new life in the Pacific Northwest.
In August of this year the trip from Missouri to Oregon took me three days. In the 1840s to 1870s, it would take from four to six months. You’d experience spring, summer and fall and hope to high heaven winter would be neither late nor early.
Most traveled on foot alongside heavily loaded horse-drawn "prairie schooner" wagons, across the prairie, the rivers and over the mountains, often accompanied by large numbers of cattle and sheep. One convoy had 1000 head of cattle along.
Caption. Dratted luck!
Naturally, tales of extreme hardship abound (an estimated 20,000 died on the trail) and I have to marvel at the fortitude of these homesteaders who made their way towards their dream of a better life.
How did the pioneer families organize themselves to make this journey? They knew they could not do it solo; the risks, the hazards, the uncertainties were too many for only the most foolhardy to attempt alone.
Most pioneer families left from the gathering place and literal “jumping off” point, Independence, Missouri. Wagon Trains were composed of up to 200 wagons, though more common were trains of 30 or less wagons.
Given my interest in leadership, I was struck by this quote* on how wagon train leaders were elected:
“Candidates (for leadership roles) would take off across the prairie and other men would follow, lining up behind their favorite. The one with the longest line would win.
This practice had its roots in the Midwestern tradition of “muster day,”… using the pretext of practicing “drills”, the muster was an opportunity for male camaraderie and its accompanying singing, wrestling, fighting, racing and gambling. The mustering men would elect their officers by lining up behind their choice.”
How would this play in today’s workplace? Imagine an organization seeking to find a leader for the next year. Those who aspire to lead – including incumbents - take a few steps out and those who support them line up alongside.
Impractical, you say? The lost expertise! The notion of popularity winning over know-how! The public embarrassment for those who “lose”! Envious losers undermining winners!
Perhaps all true. But, the muster worked for the wagon trains. Perhaps it worked because the stakes were urgent and the muster would quickly identify those people most trusted to help get the wagons and people from Missouri to Oregon, to make the soundest decisions for the benefit of the group. One could also say that the pioneers were more than a little informed and invested in the outcome of these selections.
The muster takes away the secret ballot. We know who the candidates are and everyone knows how everyone else voted. Perhaps some spoke up and explained why. Perhaps each candidate made was a succinct statement prior to the vote. Hard to say. But, I would expect that every voter would have to be prepared to explain why he (only males voted) chose the way he did.
This is democracy for governing ourselves, in government and at work. The muster quote underlines something that is forgotten or glossed over. Democracies require informed citizens; you cannot rely on your “party” or your candidate telling you what you should do. You have to know within yourself what you want and why you want it.
The Athenians required most citizens through random selection to be active in local politics, to do the actual work that politicians (the good ones) do. According to Mary Beard, “Many Athenian democrats would have argued that people must learn to do politics, they must learn to be citizens; it is not something that comes naturally. Much of the Athenian political system was about that process of learning.”
Mustering also reminds me of how bees make the life or death decision about choosing a new place to live – their urgency is comparable to that of the Oregon pioneers. In “Honeybee Democracy” we learn that decisions – highly effective ones made among several choices – are made by clusters of bees moving physically to the bee advocating the best future location of a bee colony.
My point in this is that there is more than one way to choose a leader, and we should be aware of these alternative ways. They may be better than what we are doing now; you won’t know until you try out another way.

*Source: Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail: The Times that Tried Women's Souls and a Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail (Women of the West) Illustrated by Kathleen Petersen.
Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, Inc 1993, pp. 95-96

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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