We so often hear cries for leadership in our community and there is so much written about the topic. People seem to believe that finding leadership is the silver bullet to solve all our problems, but I think this is actually just a “cop out” - a way of escaping from our own responsibility and leaving the real thinking, problem-solving and action to others.
What is equally irritating to me - especially since I run an organisation that develops South Australia’s potential community leaders - is the way that we idealise our leaders and turn them into superstars (and ourselves into sycophants).
This phenomenon, says Margot Cairnes, a leadership consultant and patron of the international humanitarian organisation, Leadership Without Borders, particularly relates to some of our well-known corporate CEOs. Some she says “… hire their own publicists, write books and actively promote their personal philosophies …[and]…they are increasingly seen as the makers and shapers of our public and personal agendas. They advise schools on what kids should learn and lawmakers on how to invest the public’s money. We look to them for thoughts on everything - from the future of e-commerce to hot places to vacation”.
When you really think about it, doesn’t this seem a bit bizarre (and perhaps a bit sad)?
As Cairnes says, what is fascinating is that we so readily buy the hype and PR spin. We are so keen to believe that there are right answers on every issue and that there are clear formulae for success in every pursuit - and we are so willing to believe that these answers and formulae are held by the rich and famous. On the one hand we do have a sense that what we are doing is just part of a fad and yet we are still ready to purchase the next “solution”.
Why do we so willingly equate fame with leadership?
Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, put the causes of this phenomenon down to the fact that we live in a meritocracy - which is so busy concentrating on identifying who is the best and pushing them up to the front that it shuts down any confidence in the rest of us.
We need to recognise that it is actually the rest of us who make the difference. For example, the author Peter Block says, “The people of South Africa, not Nelson Mandela, brought some freedom to that country, and neighbourhoods, cities, and civic and political associations, are engaged in the process of deciding what that country will become”.
Leaders he says, “… are more products of the culture and its people than creators of it … To keep focusing on the selection, training and definition of leaders is to keep us frozen in the world of monarch, autocrat and entitlement. It postpones the day when we will experience a world of community and accountability.”
So where does citizenship fit into this? It’s vitally important to consider this because, despite the fact leadership and citizenship are rarely linked together, I believe real leadership - good leadership, the leadership of the future - is actually inextricably linked with citizenship. For me, the key to better futures lies in a move from the pursuit of leadership to the pursuit of citizenship - so that we can all begin to take responsibility in our everyday lives for achieving the things we have come to expect our leaders to accomplish. In this way, leadership can be - as it should be - a force for positive change instead of the latest fad.
For me citizenship is global - and it’s about the rights and responsibilities that come with the job. Oxfam has a useful definition of global citizenship which includes acknowledgement of our responsibilities both to each other and to the planet, having an international perspective - an understanding of how the world works economically, politically, socially, culturally, technologically and environmentally, understanding the need to tackle injustice and inequality, and actively working to do so.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we ignore our responsibilities as a citizen in our local communities, our state or our country - simply that we don’t limit our citizenship to the latter and don’t promote our local interests to the detriment of those in other communities, states or countries. This, in fact, is the essence of a global citizen.
This article is an adaptation of a speech the author gave at a graduation ceremony for the University of South Australia in April 2005.
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