There is general agreement in the minds of most thinking people that the world needs leadership now more than ever before.

We look to those currently wielding political or financial power, to get us out of the mess in which we find ourselves today – a predicament whose genesis stretches back centuries, but that is now precipitating a crisis for all of humanity. 

One key assumption is that leaders have the obligation, authority, and knowledge to act in stewarding a safe path into the future. This is, after all, why we elect or appoint them in the first place. A familiar definition in that context is that leadership is the art of motivating and directing a group to act towards achieving a common goal. This description, taught in many business schools, captures the essence of inspiring others to act, while having the skills to do so. 

Is that sufficient today? Is individual leadership the remedy we so anxiously await? Or are we clinging to a formula we chose decades ago, that solved a different set of problems, but that then caused the very issues we are now trying to understand and combat today? If serving and ‘servant’ leaders, their beliefs and behaviours, navigated us into this mess, are they likely to have either the expertise or the desire to repudiate everything they stand for (and everything they practice) in order to guide us out of trouble? 

Based on common definitions of leadership and observable behaviours, we might be on a quest for something entirely different – a social phenomenon for which we are ill-prepared, and possibly have yet to experience in the modern era.

Thus, it is with increasing angst that I participate in conversations with intelligent people that give scant attention to framing the dialogue by challenging the basic proposition of leadership: what do we need ‘leadership’ to be? Are we being lazy or negligent sticking to old models – or are we simply unable to imagine anything different to the type of leadership that exists today? 

I am reminded of the anecdote of a man who stops to help a drunk search for his lost keys in a well-lit street. Others join in the search one by one. After a few minutes one of the group asks the drunk if he is sure he lost the keys here. The drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. Surprised, they ask the drunk why he is searching here, to which the drunk replies, this is where the light is.

This kind of observational bias occurs when people only search where it is easy to look. Is that the trap concerning leadership we have fallen into today? We suppose charisma is a virtue; that vision, resolve and courage are vital qualities; and that for every problem there is an individual eminently well-suited to solve that problem. We do not usually concede that these traits are socially-conditioned reflexes, grounded in Western cosmology and the worldview in which we are heavily invested. Nor do we admit that these characteristics are most often found in psychopaths. Nevertheless, that is where we continue to look. For it is where the light is.

The origins of this mindset is a worldview grounded in Western cosmology. This later embraced congruent ideas from the European Enlightenment, such as Cartesian logic, scientific rationalism, and social advancement. Often conveyed with evangelistic fervour, this interpretation of humanity became all-pervasive on the back of slavery, colonialism and genocide, along with other equally predatory practices, including those incited by neoliberal economic and political dogma today. 

Various shades of the world-system were plagiarised from this source meta-narrative. Propagated by mainstream media, most exhibited analogous traits incorporating (most tellingly in a leadership context) the cult of the individual, along with freedom of expression, for example. 

The resilience of this worldview, achieved by absorbing a few distinctive elements from other (and older) narratives, while trampling over more ancient wisdom traditions, was quite extraordinary. It explains why the resulting world-system was uniquely able to evolve a modern world-order built on a litany of black letter law.

The Western archetype also spawned three related concepts that are key to helping resolve the dystopian predicament in which we find ourselves today. Three toxic beliefs we must nullify if we are to have any hope of evolving an empathic civilisation that recognises all life as sacred. 

  • Exceptionalism – the concept that Homo sapiens are in a class of their own – different from, and superior to, all other species. This notion has also been exercised within the context of nation-states, with many assuming the possession, or acquisition, of economic and military power grants them authority over others less strong.
  • Separation – of humans from the natural environment, and detachment from each other, has led to a commonly-held view that we exist ‘apart’ from (and above) nature.
  • Objectification – the act of treating a person, or an animal, as an object that can be bought or sold, thereby disavowing the humanity of others and degrading other species. 

It is probably valid to claim that these three modes of being, so intrinsic to the Western paradigm, have spread their own ideological contagion across the world. In countering them, appreciating the diverse range of connections between humans, animals and the environment, and the ways we typically interact with wildlife, will be vital in dealing with any future pandemics, in addition to keeping the planet safe for human habitation. 

It is hardly surprising that the fatigue felt by ordinary citizens on so many levels, in such an era of disruption, has accompanied an erosion of any deeper meaning and the importance of a moral dimension in our lives. It is in this context that the anxiety felt by the younger generation, fearful that there is no future for them, is resulting in profound stress, illness, dissent, and frantic pleas to incumbent leaders to restore hope. This is futile for they are incapable of acting outside of their learned helplessness and prevailing belief system.

We acknowledge that doing the same thing, expecting different results, is a sign of insanity. But repetitive doing arises from repetitive thinking – in much the same way that our world-systems (or practices) are not unprejudiced and discrete, but tethered to a repository of beliefs held captive by our worldviews (or narratives).

Repeating the same conversations over and over, using identical cognitive structures, is evidence that we are in a cognitive gridlock from which escape seems unlikely. But repeating the same old leadership practices over and over can only be attributed to a collective autism, the flat-lining of any ability to make sense of our ambient surroundings, or a refusal to step into new ontological spaces for reframing and reconceptualising the role of ‘leadership’. 

It is entirely possible that we have reached a threshold in our ability to ‘see’ beyond the obvious and our ability to break through the many constraints that keep us locked in cognitive prisons of our own invention. If so, it is vital that we find paths of consciousness capable of propelling us beyond the gridlock of our current capacities and expectations. Evolution is demanding it. The uncertain future traces of human existence must transcend the vestiges and symbols of past ways of life and the ‘untouchable’ dogma represented by the hubris of conquerors and corporations. 

In so doing we must surrender the supremacy of a purely anthropocentric vision, letting go of all notions of human exceptionalism in the process, and igniting conversations we should be having about the relationship between humans and other species. 

When the cult of the individual wanes – along with narcissism, myths of the hero’s journey, alpha-male impulses, and unrelenting metaphors emphasising the virtue of celebrity; when community engagement drives social transformation; when matriarchal law and indigenous wisdom achieve parity with patriarchy; and when humans accept being part of nature, and treat other species with reverence, we will be witness to a new consciousness creating a more viable human civilization. 

To get there leadership will need to be understood as a collaborative grassroots experience for impelling 2nd-order transformation, rather than a vanity requiring individual expression for its fulfilment.