A staple of U.S. West Coast leadership literature is the ambulation of the narrator through the corridors of power. Here they encounter the influential and insightful, shake hands, and engage in Socratic dialogue. We, the readers, are privy to their insights — flies on the wall, as we are, in these plush lobbies, corner offices and corporate retreats. Their nuggets of excremental wisdom centre on that most elusive of topics: leadership.
In Humanise: Why Human-Centred Leadership is Key to the 21st Century, by Anthony Howard, our protagonist and self-appointed leadership expert finds himself in a small village several hours north of Stockholm, bathing naked in a hot tub with a multinational corporate consultant. With self-effacing but ultimately unironic machismo, the author comes to ask the question: Why aren’t there more Nelson Mandelas?
He is, presumably, spilling champagne and gesticulating wildly.
The cover of Howard’s book features a Rushmore-esque line drawing of Ghandi, Martin Luther King (It’s never Malcolm X), Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. However, the testimonials on the next few pages are overwhelmingly from corporate CEOs and business intelligentsia — the Nelson Mandelas of ‘political risk consulting,’ and ‘global marketing communications.’
In Otto Scharmer’s ecclesiastical book Theory U: Leading from the Emerging Future, he implores the reader that his definition of leadership includes “all people who engage in creating change or shaping their future, regardless of their formal positions in institutional structures.”
He then promptly moves on to cite the CEO of an insurance company to make a point — and, throughout the book, much like Howard — draws most extensively upon the boardroom over the mail room to drive home his points about leadership.
Leadership is always defined, quite apologetically, as a quality distinct from formal positions of power. However, no author can resist genuflection to the CEO, President, Founder, Consultant, Professor, or Institute Head.
The tacit lesson is that leadership is a quality of the few and that it disseminates from the centre to the periphery.
Things become considerably more sinister once race, gender, and other forms of privilege are considered.
In Scharmer’s Theory U, over the first fifty or so pages he speaks to or cites some 30 or 40 thinkers who have influenced him — and all but one are men. Eleanor Rosch, a cognitive psychologist, is the only woman fit to make a contribution to Scharmer’s thinking on leadership.
When it comes to race, leadership authors are happy to whitewash Mandela as the smiling civil society leader who united South Africa, a history lesson that begins at the ending — the bloody, complicated and violent Apartheid a forgotten prelude to Mandela’s triumph. The Orient is also plundered for its ancient wisdom by those who regard its contribution to leadership as beginning and ending within the confines of the monastery.
There is a reason that women and modern, non-white thinkers aren’t referenced in leadership literature: They tend to talk about power rather than leadership as the key operative in social transformation.
Studies of power are ultimately about who gets to decide what kind of society we live in. Literature on power tells us that it matters what kind of skin colour you have, what gender you identify as, what kind of education you received, where you were born, and what you have in your bank account (if you have one at all).
Leadership, it must be said, is no good without power. Leadership may teach us to be the best we can in chains, but it cannot break them.
Power is overwhelmingly held by rich white men. Leadership literature condones this trend and in doing so reveals itself to be disinterested in its own subject matter. The purpose of leadership is social transformation, and social transformation without a change in power structures amounts to asking hungry wolves to bite softly.
If you’re poor, non-white, or non-male — or anyone who believes that power should be distributed justly— stop reading about leadership.
Note: There’s 101 places to start reading about power. Things I’ve enjoyed recently include Vox’s podcast & Netflix episode on the Racial Wealth Gap with Mehrsa Baradaran, Ananya Roy’s book on Microfinance and Poverty Capital, Anna Tsing’s book on Matsusake and Capitalism, and Paolo Friere’s classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed.