Friday, April 22, 2016
The meaning of leadership
Some years ago, when I presented a paper at a meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences in Lubbock, Texas, I submitted the following definition of leadership:
When one or more human beings take command of others, thus forming a human community capable of acting for the good of the whole, that is leadership.
I like that definition because it ties together the various kinds of rule‑parent over child, captain over army, government over the governed, while incorporating Aristotle’s definition of good rule. The father rules the family as the good king rules the city: for the common good.
I would argue that “the common good” can be understood functionally in a way that is consistent with evolutionary theory but also extends beyond mere biological imperatives. Aristotle states that the polis, or political community comes to be for the sake of mere life but exists for the sake of the good life. “Mere life” means that the political community satisfied biological imperatives better than they could otherwise be satisfied. “The good life” is an indirect rather than a direct product of evolutionary processes. Human beings can be successful in a biological sense while being utterly miserable. Very fortunately for us, our evolutionary history makes it possible for us to live satisfying lives, which is to say, that we can enjoy a life that is both beautiful and good.
My definition was challenged on the grounds that a single definition of leadership is neither possible nor necessary. Might we not mean a variety of things when we use the term “leadership”? It is certain that we do give leadership awards to people merely because we admire them, without checking in with my definition.
My instincts in these matters is platonic. I like universal definitions. I am, however, willing to allow an Aristotelian critique. Aristotle pointed out that when we use the same word on more than one occasion, there are three possibilities. One is that the word is a homonym. We say “vampire bat” and “baseball bat”, the two uses of bat have only the letters and sounds in common.
A second possibility is that we use the same word in different senses but that the different senses branch out from a single, complex phenomenon. If I say that cardinals are red and that cardinals are birds and that there are cardinals, the “to be” verb means very different things. The first states that cardinals present a certain visual aspect when I see them. The second, that this observed creature falls into a species class. The latter indicates that, unlike dragons, which may be said to have color and fall into a class of creatures, cardinals actually exist. While these uses of the verb are distinct, they all represent distinct dimensions (or aspects if you prefer) of a single actual bird on my lawn.
Finally, we may use a word to indicate something that is exactly the same thing even though it appears in a variety of contexts and colors. When bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and finches adapt to changes in weather by a change in the structure of their beaks, this is natural selection. The term means exactly the same thing in both cases, despite the enormous difference between the organisms to which it is applied. I won’t claim here that this is an example of a Platonic form. Not yet.
I will say that a word is useful in the third sense when it expresses our recognition of a fundamental phenomenon. The genuine meaning of “heat” is the energy in the vibrations of molecules in a substance. All other uses of the word, as for example hot peppers or a lot of uniformed policemen, are metaphors that derive their literary force from the original. The genuine meaning of natural selection is the deferential reproductive success of distinct forms in a given environment.
I think that my definition of leadership identifies a fundamental phenomenon. I was brought back to this topic by a recent piece on capuchin monkeys. When these primates forage, how do they decide which way to go? The answer is that individuals break off in different directions. As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following. If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group. If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… . The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction. Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit. That is leadership in a basically democratic community. Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all.
Something the same can be seen in the waggle dance of honey bees, where returning hunters make their case for this or that patch of flowers. It can be seen also in the function of an animal mind. How does the rabbit in my back yard decide what to do when I step off my deck? Different mental schema compete. One says “freeze”. Another says “run like hell”. As long as I am moving at a tangent and my course is not too close, the animal is a statue. I have seen a cat walk right by a frozen rabbit. If I stop and move toward the rabbit, the “run” schema takes command. This is leadership.
I am pretty sure that this is how the human mind works as well. My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constitutencies. My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs. Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate éclair to run for president. This leads me to thinking about my paper for the IPSA in Poland. I will be there when the Republican convention is happening. I may come back.