A different way to look at leadership

This article is published on the Objektion Project here.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

The public intellectual and philosopher Slavoj Zizek said something interesting in a video interview I watched recently. He said that true leadership is about providing a vision for, and then creating a space where one’s followers can actualise themselves and achieve their own goals in this vision. It’s about leading people towards a vision for the future, providing them with a strong enough vision to support the actualisation of a diverse variety of individual goals. Then in enacting this leadership, making sure that the conditions are in place for people to go about finding meaning in the world, actualising themselves, and working on their projects.

This is perhaps one of the best explanations of leadership I have heard in a while.

Leadership is often discussed as a heavy-handed position, with phrases such as ‘taking the reigns,’ ‘taking over,’ or even ‘making people follow you.’ These definitions of leadership give the impression that one must undertake to convince others of one’s authority, and then force/encourage them to believe in the same thing you do, so that you can exert your authority. It seems similar to Zizek’s understanding, but there’s something quite different about it.

Under this commonplace understanding, leaders seek to exert their authority, manage their position, and maintain this position. It is assumed to always be in question, as a position, and you are always required to do more to convince the people who are following you that you are on the right track. It stinks of inauthenticity, to me. It seems like, if one must do this convincing work to ‘exercise’ one’s authority, then this authority is not legitimate in the first place. People are, more than likely, being forced out of their best interests to follow or obey within the authority that this leader has created. Within this paradigm, the burden is placed on the leader themselves, to do the majority of the work in convincing followers to do just that: follow.

What I understand Zizek to be saying is that true leadership gains its legitimacy from the people who are following this leader, in their own belief in the leader, and because of the strength of the idea itself. The leader has the best vision when the vision allows people the space and the freedom to actualise themselves and achieve their goals. They are thus, if they are able to implement this vision and create a space for their citizens, to be considered a very good leader. These leaders are not so much concerned with maintaining their authority; rather they are concerned with maintaining the space of self-actualisation for their followers. People recognise the legitimacy of the leader because they have this space in which they can carve out their world according to their own goals.

What might this look like on the state-level? A good Prime Minister for example, would be someone who provides a vision that unites the people of the country for the future, and then provides a space whereby the people of this country can act within this vision, and can achieve their own goals, create their own lives, and live how they wish to. I recognise that this is a liberal and individualistic conception of leadership, which is very European, but it offers us something that the commonplace conception of leadership doesn’t.

In the business setting, a good leader would be similar to the good Prime Minister: one who provides a common direction to his/her team, and then allows them to set their own goals on how they will get there, how much time they will work, and what their final product will look like. By providing a space for the self-actualisation of team members, the leader is saying that they have confidence in these people to do as they wish, in the knowledge that because of this space that is provided, they will live up to, or within, the general team vision which the leader has defined.

This idea is not new. It is, in its most simple form, a reformulation of a hands-off management style: let people set their own goals and achieve them, and they will be happier and more productive at work. What is different is the reformulation in terms of self-actualisation, which I believe to be a really important topic: one that is not thought about enough at the moment.

Can we judge some current leaders using this definition of leadership? Sure. Let’s consider Donald Trump. He has, in most cases, failed to provide much of a vision for the future, and also failed to provide a space in which his citizens can actualise themselves. Instead, millions of his citizens live in fear of the police, on the border between sufficiency and poverty, and thus have a very restricted space in which to actualise themselves. To compensate, Trump thus has to resort to an authoritarian politic: he has to reinforce and legitimise his authority in other ways, because he has failed to provide vision and space to his people.

Let’s also think about New Zealand’s Prime Minister. In my mind, she has succeeded in providing a space where citizens can actualise themselves, and has done this exceptionally well. New Zealanders’ sense of freedom is very high, and they are much happier as a result. However, in terms of providing a uniting vision, I think the vision is much more to ‘maintain the status quo’ rather than bring about transformative change, as was the stated goal at the beginning of the Ardern government in 2017. This vision of the country as status quo would seem to be something that many citizens accept as a desirable vision, however. So perhaps, we would have to admit that in fact the Ardern government is succeeding on both measures.

What do you think about leadership? What is the best definition of leadership that you’ve heard recently, and does it apply to good leadership both on the state level and with good managers in the workplace? Let me know in the comments below!

Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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Jack Goldingham Newsom

I work with imagination and creativity, with organisations who want to create meaningful change. The world needs more thinkers, I aim to be one of them.