All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: I remember, my Australian friends were shocked when I said that there was no word for ‘leadership’ in French.
B: Well, it’s one of those words that just bring together all sorts of different ideas under the one label. But then, the word ‘motivation’ didn’t exist 500 years ago, and people were still probably ‘motivated’. So, the fact that there isn’t a word for leadership in French might not mean very much.
A: I mean, how do you translate ‘leadership’ in French? The best equivalent I found was ‘meneur’, but then it sounds like you’re a gang leader. So, I wonder if it’s about not having the word or concept, or that we don’t value the concept in the same way?
B: What about, leadership is one of those things you recognise when you see it, but you can’t really define it. And maybe that’s because it’s about actions rather than intrinsic qualities. Leadership only manifests in certain circumstances. It’s a cliché, but there is no leader without followers, right?
A: True, I mean, there’s an illusion, from the word itself, that leadership somehow emanates from the person, rather than their position. It’s kind of an intrinsic something. And I think that’s a very American way of looking at things, very protestant.
B: In business, it’s one of those bullshit concepts – I mean, there’s a whole leadership industry, and a lot of it is just about trainers and coaches making money. I know you hate that kind of stuff. And then, all this focus on individual leadership, it hides an important part of the puzzle, which is about, how do you create the structures of an organization where effective collaboration is possible?
A: If I look at it with a less critical eye, I think, there’s something about leadership that… it implies that an organization is not a mechanical structure, but it’s alive somehow. Followers are not exactly like cogs, more like cattle. So, there is something, it’s like shepherds and sheep. And what that’s about is again, the leader as somehow on a different plane of reality, the leader as a superior being.
B: Coming back to the French context, we have this power structure, this class system, this network of grandes ecoles, and that’s what defines leadership. It’s the same thing in French companies, you have the engineers and Grandes Ecoles alumni at the top, leading. It’s like, their diploma gives them a kind of aura, and that’s why the rest of the company follows.
A: It seems like, the way we describe it, leadership is all about vertical relationships. I wonder then, could we say then that leadership is not a useful concept to think about collaboration. That’s, leadership will not help us think about better ways to relate with peers and equals? Or maybe, it’s saying something else, it’s saying that everything in a group starts with a person, so you need that one person to start the movement, and that’s what leadership is about?
B: Well, there is a problem still, that it’s about that mysterious intrinsic quality, and it makes you believe that leadership is that thing inside, that individual something, that creates whatever leadership is about, rather than the context. While I think… in an ideal company, there may not even be the need for leadership. That doesn’t mean all you have is process, but rather, if leadership is about making decisions and acting – and sometimes this demands courage – the role of an organization, of the structures in place, is to make it so that decisions call for as little courage as possible to be made. So, we have the effect of leadership, without need for that quality. I even wonder if we might be creating deliberately difficult situations precisely so that we can see leadership emerge, like a kind of masochism?
A: I like that, but then would you say, it’s possible that thinking in terms of leadership calls to mind a mafia-style model, and instead of complex and costly systems of organization, you just rely on that strong-man figure? And so, there’s something about keeping dysfunctional structures in place that’s about letting all that macho-stuff play out?
B: I don’t know, I think…. I think it might be cultural. It we look at a traditional Japanese organization, the problem is, there is an aspiration to consensus, but it’s not explicit why there is this aspiration. There’s very strong peer pressure not to make any mistakes. There’s a fear of being blamed. Then you’re, exiled from the village, and you die. So that’s why there is a whole system in place, so that people can avoid responsibility. In Japan, the director of a department will spend their whole day doing nothing. Their main role is to apologize if there is a problem. And it’s true that they do nothing, that’s what a good director does, they just maintain personal connections internally. But that’s essential, because it allows the younger or the more junior staff to do the job, and take risks. Because the director is responsible, and if things go wrong, they know the director will apologize. So, the staff don’t have to fear anything. And that’s leadership too.
A: I like that, because then, we can say that the features of a good leader is whatever makes sense in whatever structure. Or even, that the traits of the good leader come forward through the structure, because of the structure. So, the good leader may be the shepherd, or the macho warrior, but the good leader might also be the one who stays calm, and leads by inaction. We recognize the leader by their silence, they make room for others. Ha, and when I think of it, it may be particularly difficult, particularly for, say, more American models of leadership, to focus on that deliberate inaction.