As I See It: The New Face of Followership
March 10, 2014 Victor Rozek
There is a great deal implied in the classic cartoon greeting attributed to extraterrestrials: “Take me to your leader.” Notably, that such a person exists, and that he or she is empowered to speak for the rest of the community. It exposes a hierarchical bias that assigns power and decision-making to a single individual. And it presumes that the only decision that matters is the one at the top.
And so it has been for most of recorded history. Whether in the statehouse or the workplace, hierarchy has been the unquestioned leadership model favored by dominant cultures since humans began organizing. But not for tribal cultures. When Europeans first pushed across the continent, a confounding lack of hierarchy must have made the Shoshone seem like aliens.
Their leadership model was fluid and contextual. The most successful hunter led the hunt. The person most familiar with medicinal plants was the healer. The person most attuned to Spirit served as the shaman. Leadership, writes Thom Hartmann in his inspired book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, was viewed by the Shoshone “as an obligation, rather than the opportunity for power and wealth as it’s often viewed by ‘civilized’ persons.” Nor were leadership positions permanent. If another member of the tribe acquired superior skills, that person would take over the function. Leadership was egalitarian, advisory, and collaborative, and for the Shoshone, it worked for thousands of years.
And it may make a resurgence. For the first time since the advent of agricultural communities, the collaborative leadership model is showing signs of vitality. And it starts with computer technology, specifically the way followers (not leaders) use it. Social media is nothing if not a collaborative enterprise and a new generation is learning to live collaboratively online.
The workplace has been slower to catch on.
The modern workplace has a bi-polar relationship with collaboration. On the one hand, it is essential to teams working on complex projects. But on the other, competitive success is what is most often rewarded. The highest earnings, biggest market share, and fastest growth remain the holy trinity of competition-driven companies. At work, collaboration is valued, but mostly in service to competition.
But computers are not competitive. They know nothing of envy or greed; take no pleasure in conquest. They have, however, been built to collaborate and to facilitate collaboration. String together enough servers and a supercomputer emerges. Build offices around the country, and the workers in them are able to share data. Programmers in multiple locations team up to create applications. X-rays taken in Omaha are analyzed in Asia. The benefits of shared knowledge are amplified through a wiki. In hundreds of ways, computers promote a collaborative sub-culture and for billions of users that world is a daily reality.
Competition is often credited as the engine of progress and affluence. And its contributions are many. But it has also brought the planet to the point of collapse, and created mountains of misery. As resources shrink and the population soars, competitive domination becomes less and less viable for the billions of people unable to participate except in servitude. Extreme affluence and grinding poverty have been the result.
The quest for resources was, and remains, an attempt to amplify human energy. Whether it is acquiring fertile land to grow more food, domesticating animals to plow the fields, enslaving others to plant and harvest, or extracting coal and oil to power factories and machines; all are attempts to magnify the energy available to us. Attempts that all too frequently end in violence.
The computer, however, is the first invention designed to amplify mental, not physical energy. It requires raw materials and electricity, but beyond that makes no energetic demands on living things. In fact, “things” become less important as people find comfort and spend more time in virtual communities. And, as work becomes more distributed, collaboration becomes a necessity. A manager who cannot manage teams will not manage for long.
The possibility for deeper levels of connection and collaboration (both on the personal and global level) are precisely the two great gifts offered by the computer. With globally shrinking resources, however, they will come at a price: the willingness to make do with less. But that price may not be as formidable as it first appears.
Since the looting of, and by, the financial sector, fewer of the best and brightest are considering Wall Street as a career destination. Silicon Valley is now the popular choice. But author Kevin Roose tracked eight young Wall Street recruits through their initiation into the realm of the Masters of the Universe, and wrote about their experiences in Young Money. To summarize, they were uniformly miserable. Cash rich, they were working 100-hour weeks, and suffered from a poverty of spirit, a lack of time, an absence of support, and a constant insecurity fueled by the insane fear that what was making them miserable could be taken away.
Perhaps a slave with an enviable pay grade is no less a slave. As Hartmann notes, people find ways to escape from their particular brand of conscription “in increasingly powerful drugs, increasingly intense ‘entertainment,’ or psychopathic or violent behavior.” Hartmann wasn’t describing Wall Street, but it is a pretty good fit.
Contrast that with the wisdom of children.
Hartmann recounts a story about Australian Aborigine children who, in the early 1900s, were taught by British missionaries to play soccer. Like kids everywhere, they enjoyed participating in play. But, notes Hartmann, “the Aboriginal children played until both sides had equal scores: that was when the game was over, in their mind.” The British were baffled, and it took them a full year to convince the kids that the game required someone to lose. But computers, at their highest levels of purpose and functionality, are telling us there are options to the old models of leadership and competition.
In a very short period of time, computers have changed human behavior all over the globe. Life is migrating online creating a new reality that is collaborative and egalitarian. Users send over 500 million tweets a day. Well over a billion people spend hours each day on social media connecting and reconnecting with friends. Communities of “followers” spontaneously bloom around common interests. Tyrannies are being challenged. Computers have given the oppressed a voice, helped the subjugated to organize, and allowed otherwise fragmented groups to stage revolutions. Hierarchy is becoming less necessary and, fearing its own mortality, it has also become more intrusive, using the same liberating technology in a last ditch attempt to subjugate.
But it may be too late. Followership has a new face and it looks a lot like the face of tomorrow’s leaders.