Thursday, 07 December 2017 17:39

When Every Leader Promises to Change the World, How Can We Tell Who Will Leave Us Better Off?


Some bosses are all Id. A bundle of impulses in a suit — if they can keep the suit on — whose only predictable trait is their irrationality. We use all kinds of names for managers like that: Nutter. Ticking bomb. Predator. Moron.

We resent them. We denounce them. But we also follow, and even admire them. Or enough of us do that they manage to rise to, and stay in, power.

Those leaders are not just controversial. They are fundamentally anti-social. They hurt people, often impulsively, and then call it “authenticity.” They claim to have to shake things up to put an end to dysfunctional institutions, and lead the way to a better future. But in the name of authenticity and disruption, what they end up perpetrating is cultural assassination: they corrode norms of decency, trust, and cooperation in ways that are hard to repair even after they are gone.

Needless to say, there are authentic, disruptive leaders of a different kind. Let me call them counter-social. They also act impulsively, and passionately defy current structures and norms. But their impulses are tempered by compassion and channelled by curiosity, whereas anti-social leaders’ are fueled by suspicion and amplified by fear. If anti-social leaders take liberties that restrict others’ freedom, counter-social ones work to expand it, especially for those who have had less than their fair share of it, in ways that long outlast their own tenure.

At a time when all leaders claim authenticity and promise disruption, it is not always easy to distinguish anti-social leaders from the counter-social variety. And yet it is ever more important to tell them apart, to understand what propels one or the other kind of leader to the top, and what drives us to become—or support—either one.

To answer those questions, we must go beyond dissecting leaders’ skills and styles. We must look at how societies make leaders and what leaders do to societies in turn. To do so, we would do well to revisit the work and fate of a reluctant leadership scholar: Sigmund Freud.

At the turn of the 20th century, Freud fashioned himself into a spokesperson for the unspeakable, an authority on the subversive, a voice of unreason — the assembly of which he named “the unconscious” — earning the precarious prominence of a soapbox on quicksand. Over three decades, his work sparked controversy and turned him into a public intellectual.

But by the late 1920s, as he set out to write Civilization and its Discontents, his mood had darkened. Freud looked around and saw widespread social tension, and leaders unable to contain it, but willing to exploit it. Warning about the dangerous appeal of those leaders, the book would become his most prescient and popular one — as well as his last.

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