17 June 2008

A Convenient Lie About Leadership

“What if leadership is not a phenomenon determined by the ability of an individual? What if the leader does not actually cause outcomes? What if the central role of the leaders is designed to perpetuate a myth of control and to provide false hope for salvation?”
- Rick Barker

McCain has made a name for himself in part by advocating for campaign finance reform, and yet his campaign has been plagued by the scent of little scandals; his campaign manager and chief adviser have taken heat for their prior lobbying work. Conflict is inevitable when people pretend to have control over forces larger than they are.

Obama, although cleaner on the issue of contributions from corporations, is nonetheless in his own kind of denial about market forces and the power of corporations.

McCain and Obama have joined the parade of well intentioned politicians who simply haven’t admitted the central fact of our time: the corporation is today’s dominant institution. The corporation defines the norms and goals of our modern world as surely as the church did medieval times or the state did the 18th and 19th centuries. The state has about as much influence over the corporation as the early guilds had over the medieval church.

McCain, like Obama, has tapped into the fact that most 70% of Americans tend not to trust big companies. (In the EU, about 60% of Americans tend not to trust big companies.) By contrast, only 44% of Americans tend not to trust the UN.

Fortune 50 (not 500) employ nearly 8% of the American workforce even though they make up, by raw number, only 3/10,000th of a percent of the companies in the US.

Americans tend not to trust big companies for a variety of reasons but still find themselves reliant on them for jobs, products, financing, and services.

Big companies define more than the workforce. They define the work norms, the products we use, salaries, the media products we consume, and the focus of anyone intent on success. If they chose to relocate overseas, communities lose jobs and tax revenues; states and countries compete for corporations and are increasingly unlikely to dictate terms to corporations.

The dominance of the corporation is big deal that doesn’t get mentioned. If politicians did mention it, they’d be unable to sustain the myth of control over the events that control people’s lives. People continue to prefer the story that evil doers (be they terrorists or greedy CEOs) are making our lives bad to the more probable story that every period of history is defined by forces and trends larger than any individuals. As any surfer will tell you, sometimes it makes more sense to ride waves than fight them.


LSD said...

One of the best bumper stickers I've seen:

"Don't follow leaders"

-Iconoclastic, yet passive-aggressive.

I agree, the steady drum beat of complaint directed at the evil corporations is sometimes uttered by folks who own stock. I think it's good to remember that this era's dominant construct is, at least, democratic and invites anyone to join the elite. The previous systems of distributing power looked for royal bloodlines or the anointing by God (via some representative here on earth) otherwise you were relegated to a life in the mire.

I like the surfing reference, but I would argue that the terrorists actually do make our lives worse. -Like a guy with a tanker full of sewage who pulls up to your favorite beach and starts pumping.

Speaking of trend surfing, the current big wave champion, of course, is Al Gore. He started paddling too late to claim that internet wave, but the global warming one is all his. So far he has avoided the rocks and even collected an oscar and the nobel... Last I heard he was actually talking about taking action against global climate change. -Wait a minute, action? -are you the guy who knows what we all need to do?

I don't know who Rick Barker is, but I think he may have been talking about Al.

Life Hiker said...

Corporations! They get things done but they wield a lot of power. Too much power, often, for the really big ones.

It seems to me that more transparency and more shareholder power might be a good thing, but care must be taken. Tying up the person who brings you things can be stupid. Mostly, we should ride the wave.

Gypsy at Heart said...

Like Scott, no idea who Mr. Barker is but I don't precisely agree with his take. History has documented time and again for good or bad that the abilities of certain individuals did actually cause visible outcomes and that there was real truth to the degree of control they uniquely exerted. Alexander of Macedon, Peter the Great, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, Churchill come readily to mind for example.

The rest of your post I agree with completely and it puts me in mind of something I once read about the modern spin we put on old style actions. In particular this one stayed with me: old day colonization is modern day tourism.

Ron Davison said...

Rick Barker is an old friend and profound thinker. He's worked as a professor of business theory in a number of universities and published a few books.

I think that there are waves and stages that are bigger than any one person or leader. I also think, as with surfing, there are leaders who are much better than others at riding these waves.