What would you do if an alien species dropped down out of the sky, came to you, and uttered this infamous cliché: “Take me to your leader.”
Where would you take them? Who would you take them to?
This old saw has been played a dozen different ways, usually for comedic effect, and when Professor Dean Williams asked this very question during his keynote address at the third annual Adaptive Leadership Conference, there were plenty of appreciative chuckles. Particularly because the conference room overlooked the National Mall of Washington, DC. But as the laughter faded, and he took us further down the rabbit hole, spooling out the threads of the thought experiment, the question became clear.
Who, exactly, are our leaders?
The tempting response, the obvious one, is to point to our public seats of power. To the people who, either by election or by force, sit in positions of authority. But answer me this:
If you’re the charismatic CEO of a wealthy company, your employees and stakeholders are (still) happy - but deep inside you know your company is failing to address the next big adaptive challenge of digitalization, are you a leader?
If you’re the president of a country or a political party, but your decisions favor the political faction that elected you and neglect far-ranging societal need, are you a leader?
If you try to please everybody instead of orchestrating learning and growth, even when it includes some level of discomfort, are you a leader?´
Authority is a social contract. People need them, and they agree to be led for many different reasons, for things like freedom, protection, income, stability, and quality of life. That contract may be upheld by revenue, or legislation, or military might, but those tools have their limits. If a person in a position of authority gets too sucked into the powers of his station, then sooner or later, they will lose the credibility and influence to maintain that station. Whatever leadership they might have exercised from their position of power is overwhelmed by the fact that people are angry, hurting, and desperate for change.
The problem is that we too often think that putting someone else in that same seat of power is going to change anything. We keep making the same mistake, thinking that leadership is a position. A job. And if only we get the right person in that chair, it’s all going to get better. But positions are just symbols. And people are, well... people. Imperfect. Flawed. How could any one person change the world alone?
As Professor Williams so eloquently helped us understand, leadership isn’t a job title.
It is a practice.
Your next intervention.
A way of life.
I’m seeing this first hand, right now, in my home country. Despite the current challenges in forming a stable government after the elections in October, Germany has an impressive parliamentary democracy, with a long tradition on debating in tough issues of ethics outside party discipline. In the summer, parliament passed marriage equality, for example. The first same-sex couples got married less than a month ago. It was truly an incredible and joyous moment in our history. But it didn’t just happen because our legislators passed a law. A law is just another symbol. Words on a page. This marriage equality law is the result of leadership, not an act of one. Over the course of several decades, enough people stepped up and spoke out, some of them risking their very lives, activists and polititians ripened the issue so that our legislators had no choice but to make the change with broad consensus. That’s leadership.
I’m very proud of Germany, proud of my fellow citizens, all those who realized that real change demands real leadership at every level of society, not just within the halls of government.
But I’m also ashamed. Ashamed, because I wasn’t one of those leaders. I didn’t contribute.
I came out as a gay man in my 20s, but I never really was a queer activist.
I was too scared about what people would think about me.
I was too uncomfortable becoming a queer activist.
I was too worried about pushing the boundaries of gender and sexual identities, afraid that people might put me in a box.
I have been complicit in conforming with the status quo, even when it affected me and my closest loved ones.
Thankfully, others stepped forward even when I dared not.
There are so many complex challenges facing the world today. A changing climate. Diminishing natural resources. Human rights abuses. Racial inequity. Unequal wealth distribution. Overpopulation. The list goes on and on.
It leaves so many of us feeling speechless, paralyzed, and overwhelmed. Where do we enter? Where do we begin?
But what happens on that day, when the aliens come down out of the sky, and ask you to take them to your leader? How will you answer? How else can you answer but with the truth?
The answer is and always has been us.