David Stark / Zarkonnen
2013-07-15 22:20

"Leader" is a really overused word. You hear it all the time in the press, in headlines such as "world leaders meet at Davos". There's a lot of people involved in charity or activism who attempt to achieve their aims by talking to these "leaders" - business leaders, political leaders, community leaders. The latter especially can mean anyone loud enough to dominate a conversation.

I absolutely hate this word. I think it's undemocratic, and it papers over a lot of differences.

If you have a president, or a congresswoman, or an MP - they're not leaders, they're representatives. They were elected as representatives of the people, and that's the job they should be doing.

Calling a dictator or quasi-elected ruler a "leader" is plain horrible. You're claiming that someone who is in power by force or trickery is a leader rather than just an oppressor.

The fetishization of "leadership" in general is pretty sickening. This is something you see in business and government circles, where people have read a bit too much Von Clausewitz and believe that "leadership" is this amazing quality you can have.

The idea is that there has to be one person who makes the decisions, for the sake of there being decisions. It doesn't matter so much if they're qualified or informed enough to make them. All that matters is clear forward momentum in any direction at all.

This is a great environment for people making really stupid, uninformed, selfish decisions with no accountability. You might remember George W. Bush calling himself "the decider". He saw it as part of his job description to make these final "leadership" decisions.

If you trace this kind of thing back ideologically, you pretty soon get to nasty places. What matters isn't justice, fairness, or equality. What matters is a clear hierarchy, preventing ambiguity at all costs, a fear of "chaos" which trumps everything else.

And obviously this decider is going to be biased. The ideology assumes a no-nonsense practical man or philosopher king as the decider. That's not how it works, though: anyone on such a position of power is embedded in and indebted to a whole lot of supporters and ideologies. Having a decider is really just putting a particular interest group in charge. It renders any kind of dialogue or process superfluous: the group in power can simply stall until their decider can hand down a ruling to "prevent discord" and show "leadership".

The Economist recently had an interesting article about what they called "Zombie Democracies". Their argument: There is more to democracy than just elections. There are a whole lot of elected rulers who believe they can govern with no limits or accountability, just because they were elected. They think that they are made dictators - deciders - until the end of their term in office. And so they feel free to shut down critical media, persecute the opposition, put their cronies into positions of power, and use the police or army to suppress protest.

This is not how a democracy works. Democracy is a whole bundle: beyond voting, you need a society and culture which allows for a dialogue, a functioning press, freedom of assembly and association so people can organize politically. If you live in what's by all accounts a repressive dictatorship, save that it has elections once every few years, even if those elections are tamper-free, you're not in a democracy. Elections become a rubber-stamp for the powerful to claim legitimacy.

So there are these zombie democracies, managed democracies, single-party democracies, blatant-dictatorships-in-all-but-name - and you bundle together their "leaders" with everyone else. It papers over the difficult question of whether those people are rightfully in power.

This makes the dictators and tyrants and bullies and fraudsters extremely happy, because it gives them legitimacy. They get to go on the red carpet and shake hands with people whose power derives from some kind of sane place.

It really represents a retreat from democratic ideals. Everyone with power - businessman, bureaucrat, representative, bloodthirsty dictator, fraud - is a "leader". It's no longer relevant how someone got the power they have, it's only relevant that they have it. In this kind of worldview, the way to get things done is to supplicate these leaders, to reason and cajole and entreat, and try to convince them to do the right thing.

This isn't how it's meant to work. Getting the right thing done shouldn't be a function of going begging to people who have power, it should be about finding the right people with the right attitudes, and putting them into positions where they can get things done. This is definitely what democracy is about, and it's how employing business managers should work.

More and more, everyone in power gets bundled into this class of "leaders". A new aristocracy which we are presented with, who we are told are in charge, and which we are told to respect and work with. And I don't think we should accept that.

Let's start by calling those people what they are: men and women who have power, not "leaders", and not all of them worthy of respect or even tolerance.