When I was a kid I used to play a game called ‘follow the leader.’ It was a variation on ‘Simon Says’ where one person would lead the group and everyone had to follow making the same gestures, sounds and funny walks as the person in front. It was pretty egalitarian in principle because everybody was supposed to get their turn. But it didn’t always work out that way. There were a few kids who preferred to lead and weren’t so interested in following. While I liked to invent games and often suggested different things to play – sometimes incredibly elaborate things – I never had to be the leader.
Even then I was happy to be the policy wonk and chief advisor.
Sometimes though it seemed that certain people had to be leaders while others were more than happy to simply be the follower. Whether it was lack of imagination on the part of the latter or a kind of bullying bravado by the former, this ‘gang’ mentality would occasionally take over. It generally wasn’t much fun. More often than not, I would wind up walking away. I didn’t need to be the boss but I wasn’t a blindly loyal follower either.
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of ‘leaders.’ Maybe it was because my father was an independent spirit – he had been a hobo for six years in the dirty 30s – and used to like to recite the Kipling poem “If,” especially the part that went: “If you can walk with Kings yet keep the common touch.” In short I was brought up to believe that I could think for myself and that no-one was my natural better. I have a certain amount of respect and politeness towards earned authority but no sense of deference.
As for people who think they are the boss because of their birth, the wealth, their position or, worst of all, their gender or race, I really have no time for them. I neither respect that assumed mantle nor do I believe it has a place in a modern democratic society.
So when people tell me that so and so is a strong leader and that’s what we need to run the community, the organization or the country – I always find myself asking on what basis do we judge that strength. Because if it is simply because they are manipulative, angry, aggressive and self-aggrandizing (as so many so-called leaders seem to be) I want to ask the follower: What the hell is wrong with you? Are you still playing kids games? Are you nothing but a forelock tugging weakling?
Because people don’t get to assert authority over others unless some of those others are willing slaves.
If someone has a better idea than me, I’ll listen to them. If someone is better at solving a particular problem then I’ll let them. If they are more articulate and better able to express an argument I’ll let them speak. And when someone else can do a better job, I’ll stand aside. Temporarily.
Leadership to me is situational and, like the child’s game, should let everyone get a chance to show their quality. But following someone blindly while they lead me over a cliff – merely because they have steely blue eyes and a barely concealed rage? That’s not for me. And you can keep your jackboots and symbols of ‘national pride’ while you’re at it.
And that’s ten minutes.