Saturday, June 30, 2012

Excessive Deference Corrupts

Today's political leaders often start out better than we give them credit for. Often elected officials are people you'd admire if you met them in any other walk of life. They can be impressive people in a business with the toughest possible character test; many followers worship them. It's tough to be a normal person within that.

Most of our political leaders are also extremely accomplished people with at least some exceptional qualities. They are thrust into a position that would be the ruin of many humans. Power itself tends to corrupt and being surrounded by sycophants is itself a character test. There are, too, the many opportunities for personal indiscretions; and an apparent sense of invulnerability.

But, leaders have to wield power while knowing they may well be corrupted by it. To carry the awareness that, they are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. There is a tension, though, between why it is difficult to be a good leader; and requiring the art of following in one's followers. For them to be able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

It does not mean that we should be disrespectful of leaders, nor of any other human being. But, we ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment?

More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield. The average political chief executive is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He or she is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living talisman against natural disasters, economic downturns and spiritual malaise. He or she is the one who answers the phone at 3am; part therapist, social worker and national talk show host.

The vision of the political chief executive as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. And with great responsibility comes great power; in the political and business spheres alike. The top corporate offices concentrate enormous power in the hands of whichever professional manages to claw his/her way to the top. That executive power will continue to grow, until stakeholders reconsider the incentives they have given to such posts.

Being surrounded by people who inflate your importance and treat you as a figure of worship makes you a worse leader. The best leaders are at once willing to act decisively; as well as being prone to humility and introspection. They are attuned to the possibility that they too are fallible. Sycophants destroy that perspective and deferential followers invite bad leadership. The challenge today, is to distinguish just and unjust authority, not merely opposing authority.

But, challenges to authority aren't mere attitude, mounted for their own sake as an intellectual pose. Challenging authority is in fact indispensable if authority is to remain just, legitimate and tempered by the humility that is a precondition of good leadership. Most great leaders have been publicly mocked, challenged and disrespected somewhere along the line. For most of us the problem isn't an inability to follow, but rather a refusal to constrain our leaders; in ways that force them to resist the temptations toward excesses inherent in their positions.

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