Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Transcending Titles: Becoming the Leader People Want to Follow

In First Democracy, Paul Woodruff describes the Athenian democracy; a society where representatives were chosen by lottery rather than election and every man had the same right to speak in the legislative Assembly. This practice must have made the first days of the new Assembly somewhat chaotic, since a leadership figure during the last session may not even be a part of the Assembly this time around, no matter what his prominence or popularity was. In such situations rhetors could “exert special influence without holding public office, simply in virtue of their speaking abilities” (33). This may also be the case in the evolving world where Woodruff hopes the Internet will “grow to give the citizens of modern states a rough equivalent of the rights of ancient Athenians to speak and be heard” (68). How then must a person communicate in the modern world to be able to lead a group of people in a certain direction?

In A Rhetoric of Motives Kenneth Burke writes, “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even if their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are or is persuaded to believe so” (544). The act of identification is not physical, since A and B remain separate entities with separate experiences, rather this is a symbolic act. As Burke points out, A has to be persuaded that he has joined interests with B in order for identification to occur. This implies that in order to get people to follow him, a leader has to communicate a common interest with his audience, and thereby create an artificial unity from diversity. Woodruff explains how Cleocritus was able to unite followers of the tyrants and the democrats by appealing to their common interests and culture as Athenians (83). In a more diverse group of people a leader may appeal to ‘basic humanity’ like Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy did in their internationally published opinion editorial about Libya. However, identification does not always rely upon pre-existing ties of fellowship. Effective leaders are able to create common interests where none may naturally exist. One way to do this is by articulating a vision which, although not initially of interest to the audience, is made interesting by the way it is described and linked with pre-existing interests. In Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games Mitt Romney describes the task of leadership as “creating a vision of higher purpose and . . . offering challenges beyond normal expectations” (xix). He writes this about his leadership in the 2002 Olympics, “Our task was to identify a defining vision, communicate that in a compelling way, and provide the kind of focus that reinforces that vision as a living, breathing thing, not just lip service. And if we were to succeed, it would be because of the commitment to that vision by the entire team, and by the community” (xix). It is interesting to note that without that shared vision highly qualified people will not follow you, even in a corporate setting (59-60). As Romney writes, “Leaders establish vision and values that motivate and create unity of purpose” (20), again it is the ‘vision’ or common interest that creates a group.   
Romney’s language describing the unifying vision as a “higher purpose” sounds similar to the kind of leadership we encounter in Plato’s Phaedrus where leadership is not simply exploiting base interests to gain power over people, “dispensing miserly benefits of a mortal kind” (38), but rather a transcending process which brings both leader and follower closer to the gods. This transcendence is at once altruistic and egoistic. One gets personal benefit not by satisfying base passions (the black horse) but by summoning one’s abilities to reach a new, higher level. As Socrates says, “they become winged and light, and have won one of their three submissions in these, the true Olympic games, and neither human sanity nor divine madness has any greater good to offer a man than this” (37-38). It seems the human mind possesses a special potentiality to be fascinated and persuaded by such transcending, perhaps partially because of the great desire we have to experience the sense of purpose and unity such transcending can bring. We are united in something greater than ourselves.

See how composer Eric Whitacre leads a virtual choir of 2000 singers from 58 countries all over the world by unifying them in the transcendent purpose of making beautiful music. These singers have never met Whitacre or each other, yet they are united in a common purpose. He wrote the music and articulated the vision, and they all contributed their parts on individual Youtube videos which together became something transcendent.