Surviving leadership

4 June 2022


We are obsessed with leadership, yet that is what has taken us into the current crisis, and seems incapable of getting us out of it. What if we entertain the unspeakable thought that leadership is the problem more than the solution?

Putin is a leader, at least in the opinion of most Russians, as is Zelensky, more justifiably, in the opinion of most Ukrainians and people elsewhere. Meanwhile, Biden and many other leaders have been working earnestly to stop Putin. Yet he carries on.

In this nuclear age, leadership empowers one individual to destroy us all. For whoever misses this, Putin keeps reminding us that he has that one last card to play. (In fact, he has been playing it from the beginning. Where would he be without it?) The fact that our survival lies in the hands of such a person, or anyone else’s for that matter, is sheer madness—based on the harebrained belief that we must get them before they get us. Someone, somewhere, someday will play that card for real, perhaps even a decent leader who makes a catastrophic mistake. Shall we just carry on, hoping for the best? Or act, finally, to avert World War III instead of delaying it again?

Leaving this aside, one leader makes a disastrous decision, and in the face of repeated failure, in a country incapable of correcting him, persists, throwing the entire world into turmoil. Call this Leadership 21st Century style!

We talk incessantly about thinking outside the box, yet rarely do we act outside our boxes. Deep as this crisis is, I see no reframing, no rethinking, no proposals commensurate with the severity of the situation. Just the same old, same old… It’s not that unorthodox ideas don’t exist; it’s that they don’t get through, to the mainstream media and the established leadership, hence to public opinion.

Our infantile fixation on leadership boxes us in in two respects. First, leaders generally attain power by conforming to some established set of norms, not bucking them. Why do we keep expecting established power to take us past established thinking? And second, when we say the word “leadership”, we focus on an individual—not us, but him or her. Is there nothing more to changing collective behavior than individual initiative?

There is. Communityship can function beyond leadership: collective action by concerned people on the ground, beyond some individual at the “top”. There can be wisdom in these crowds, quite different even from that of wise leaders. This is the time to tap into it.

Putin has been unnerving us, so how do we unnerve Putin, and the likes of him elsewhere?  Not by marches, but by actions. How about this? In 2019, when a corrupt senator in Paraguay escaped impeachment, a group of women, fed up with the country’s enduring corruption, began pelting his house with eggs. Eventually the smell got to him, and he resigned.

Imagine all the people around the world who are capable of throwing eggs at Putin, in one way or another. 20 to 30 million Russians live abroad and untold numbers of other people have friends, relatives, and business acquaintances in Russia. All are capable of speaking truth to people, about the smell emanating from the Kremlin. 

Imagine a relentless campaign that makes clear the stakes of this conflict to millions of Russians, one-by-one, with polite reminders that, soon, they too will be suffering at the hands of their leader: an army of authenticity that reaches over Putin's propaganda machine in every way conceivable—by email, mail, calls, whatever. Every time his censors block one channel, find two more.

Putin may be villainous, but he is human. There has to be something that can get to him, something that he cherishes beyond his mythical empire. Somewhere someone must know something particular about him, or else has a particularly clever way to deal with such bullies. (Read Blueprint for Revolution, by Srdja Popovic, for a wealth of possibilities.) Whatever works could become a model for popular movements to bring down autocrats everywhere.  (#UnnervePutin)

This silly little example in Paraguay may not be as silly or as little as it may seem. Many an idea that first appeared to be incongruous has proved to be eventful. How about this, more ambitious?

All the leading international associations are made up of establish powers and led by superpowers—the G7, G20, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and especially NATO, that contributed to the current crisis. Is this leadership also boxing us in? The Economist Index of Democracies lists 21 nations as “full democracies”, most of them small, such as Uruguay, Mauritius, and Costa Rica. No superpower makes it to this list, while Japan, the largest country that does, is only the eleventh most populous in the world.  What if these countries formed a D21, an association of SmallerPowers, as an alternate voice, for world peace instead of national jockeying? 

Between women throwing eggs and a community of SmallerPowers lies a world of ideas, one of which could put us on the road forward, instead of backward. To survive, we may need to listen to the voice of communityship instead of the bluster of leadership.

© Henry Mintzberg 2022, with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, i.e., no rights reserved,
(with a minor revisions on 06 June 2022).