Too often, we trust only members of our own culture. This is particularly problematic when we're stuck in a dysfunctional culture in need of change. At such times we might do better to follow someone outside of the culture, even someone who seems like a nerd.
One well-deserved reason that corporations have become the dominant institution is their approach to culture. Within the world of political speeches, culture is revered as something to preserve. Within the world of business speeches, it is more often criticized as something to change.
To me, the most important element of culture is the “cult” portion. Often, a particular culture is defined by a shared notion of the world, shared rituals, shared values. These notions and values don’t need to help the group succeed in the world. In fact, the dismal failure resulting from adherence to such cultures may actually lead to a bonding as the group discusses the ways in which the world is unfair or unreasonable in its demands.
What intrigues me about candidates like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and, most notably, Ralph Nader is that they have the potential to be real leaders. They aren’t pandering to the culture, telling people things like “You deserve your big SUV” or “You deserve to be a single parent.” Typically less savvy about the power of popular culture than the demands of reality, such candidates are interesting because they point to the inherent flaws in our culture.
Too often, we confuse leadership with popularity. Leadership suggests two things: you’re taking a group somewhere they’ve not yet been and people are following. Most often, candidates pledge allegiance to our cultish practices, whether it is burning witches or burning carbon-based fuels. Less often do candidates show potential for leadership by actually going somewhere new, by challenging our cultish practices. Too often we don’t really want leaders who stretch us to move to new places. Rather, we’re looking for someone cool to hangout with at the local diner.
Sadly, too few candidates have the courage to speak out against dysfunctional cultures like the inner-city black culture, the culture of consumption as entertainment, or the culture of entitlement. Of course, to do so would be to be critical of, and therefore alienate, the poor, the rich, and the middle-class. I guess in that sense, politics is just like high school: it’s never cool to point out that what the rest of the gang thinks of as cool isn’t actually all that cool. In fact, I think that they call the people who do that nerds, a group groups generally avoid.
But nerds have made marvelous leaders in other domains, like science and technology. Perhaps once politics is taken more seriously, when people begin to realize that the consequences of good or bad policy are actually a matter of life or death, nerds will get the audience they deserve. Until then, we'll be stuck here in the diner, hanging out with the cool kids who pretend to be leaders as we spin on our bar stool, confusing motion with progress.