Organizations of all sizes usually have a designated person as a leader. Beyond a certain size, organizations are large and complex, and no single person can claim to have expertise in running each part of it. Consider a nation state with millions of citizens, thousands of representatives, massive government departments, tomes of legislature. It still needs a single President or Prime Minister to lead its way through complicated histories and futures.
Is it a failure of the human mind to accept collective leadership? Large complex systems (ecosystems) exist in nature without a single brain driving it. They are robust and symbiotic with each participant playing its role. The withstand the vagaries of nature, harsh climates, fires, droughts and so on. So unlike forests, why do human societies need a single leader to take “important decisions”?
Over the past five thousand years, since human civilizations have taken a stronghold of the planet, such great persons have taken hold of our collective imaginations. From apostles to emperors, from Moses to Trump we choose to define our times through our leaders. Even the so-called collectivist communist nations have a single (usually tyrannical) dictator at the top. It is as-if these humans command the rest of us towards a collective journey as a species.
Is this fact or a perspective? Does society see its values reflected in a single person and lets them drive the society? Are people so much brainwashed into the concept of a messiah to take them to salvation? Why do humans fail so spectacularly in collectivism? Or do they?
Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States offers another view. In his brilliant and highly detailed chronicle, he painstakingly unravels the concept of a singular leader. He along with Yuval Harari are forging a new narrative, where things happen not because of the leadership, but because situations drive people to collaborate and find new paths. The numbers that swell from the grassroots ultimately do throw up a leader, and the great stride forward is nothing but a forgone conclusion.
Even though a new thinking is emerging, we are still locked into this model of a single leader into the 21st century. This thinking permeates right down to all kinds of organizations including sports, communities, companies and families. The CEO is supposed to be the driving force of the organization.
But is all of this a cop-out? Does having a leader relieve you of your responsibilities? I think no. I think all of us who live under some kind of leadership need to wake up to the fact, that we are collectively responsible for what is happening around us. Our leaders are nothing but a reflection of the best or worst of us. It is we who are responsible for their behaviour, good or bad, and most often we seem unable or unwilling to care enough.
The only reason human societies have flourished on the planet is that they have taken agency and collaborated with their fellow humans. They have taken responsibility of responding to situations and forging new paths. Things happen because we make them happen, not some figure head sitting on the top.
It is time we question that model. Why do we need a single leader? Can we not work collectively towards our shared goals? Can we not agree to listen to each other and resolve our conflicts? Or are we just happier not taking that responsibility, so when the time comes, we can safely pass on the blame?
Will collective leadership will ultimately come through? Giving too much power in the hands of a single individual is a dangerous way to live. But will every individual take responsibility for their groups behaviour? Even with flattening information asymmetry, in today’s world, it does not seem realistic that this will happen. Mega billionaires and populist strongmen seem to be getting more and more powerful.
The hope is that the information driven societies will end the reign of the single great leader. We will see a collective model of leadership that we have not fully seen or grasped at scale yet. It will be very interesting to see what that model will be like.