Aside from technology and politics the topic I spend a lot of time studying, thinking about and working on is ‘leadership.’ Throughout my professional career I have the opportunity to observe different leaders in different capacities and from those experiences I have drawn a number of conclusions. For the longest time though I’ve avoided writing about leadership because I am somewhat cautious of of how cliched and boring discussions of leadership are, because they often seem to be about anything and nothing at the same time. In addition, whenever I hear people speak of ‘leadership’, including ‘the need for’, I often wonder if ‘leadership’ is being used as an excuse not to have to think too deeply about how we as a society have to solve some of very pressing problems on our own. When someone says, “we need strong leaders to deal with this issue” what I hear is, “we need someone else to solve this problem because frankly we’re fresh out of ideas.” In this way leadership becomes an avoidance mechanism, a kind of intellectual out-sourcing.
Having given my disclaimers, I will now build the anticipation (or more realistically bore you to death) by defining some terms that I will use frequently. The first term is a leader: I consider a leader to be someone capable of moving others to action. The second term, leadership, is the practice, art, craft, etc., of being a leader. The third term is context: when I say ‘context’ what I am really doing is finding a fancy way to say ‘situation’ or ‘conditions’. The context you live in therefore is my way of describing the combination of the place and time you inhabit. The last word I’ll define is culture. Though there are entire books dedicated to defining the term, I consider culture to be the constantly in-flux system of beliefs and behaviours that are common amongst a grouping of people. Cultures come from contexts, in that our behaviours are beliefs systems (including dominant and opposing belief systems) are defined by where we live, in what time period we live there, who lived there before, and who lives there now. Cultures can be geographical, institutional, ethnic: in other words, in whatever ways people organize themselves cultures can emerge.
The point I would like to make in this post then is that leadership is contextual. What I mean here is that a leader can only be fully understood as a representative of a culture, a culture he or she often ends up disrupting. Leaders are necessarily extensions and representations of cultures through their adherence to and simultaneous ability to shape them. A leader therefore is not only a product of his or her culture but is also well recognized as a symbolic embodiment and an active agent of change in that culture(I just used three different sentences to make the exact same point). To understand what makes a leader a leader one must then understand the cultural context from which he/she emanates.
Allow me to take the present moment as an example: having spent a number of years working in Silicon Valley I had the good fortune to see up close the leadership practiced by people like Larry Page of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. I use these two examples not only because they are familiar but because each individual is the antithesis of what classical leadership literature describes: they are quiet, introverted, some might say technocrats who will never move people to tears by giving speeches that will move the masses.
Nevertheless, both have been successful in creating revolutionary products that have budged the world off the diving board of the present into the vast pool of the future. Their impact on the world, specifically their ability to move others to action, is easy to quantify in the metric of your choice, be it absolute number of users of their services, time spent on their services, revenue generated by their companies, new industries created as a result of their efforts: take your pick.
What they share in common (aside from all the Ex-Googlers now working at Facebook: Boo-Ya!) is a culture that has nurtured them and made their behaviour acceptable where it might not otherwise have been. For example, find a picture on the internet of either manwearing a tie and I’ll give you a nickel (payable in the equivalent of whatever currency Greece adopts after it’s booted out of the euro-zone). Though both became billionaires before hitting the half-way point of their lives, neither can be said to live ostentatiously and both are famously low-maintenance. Though they found success through the capitalist system, neither appears to be motivated by financial gain (Facebook’s Q1 Earnings proved that one. Boo-ya #2!), and instead they share a determination to bring about social revolutions through the worldwide adoption of their tools. Lastly, Page and Zuckerberg and notoriously media-shy and spend little energy cultivating their media personas: instead, all of their energies are poured into ensuring the continued relevancy of their companies.
Their behavior and belief systems therefore preceded them because Page and Zuckerberg are products of a Silicon Valley culture where substance is valued over style, competence and vision are valued over communication skills, and wealth is treated as a means rather than an ends. They are products of a Silicon Valley culture whose validity and legitimacy they continually reinforce. At the same time both men are disruptive agents in American business culture. The disdainful remarks made by an easily forgettable financial analyst on the topic of Mark Zuckerburg’s choice of hoodie reflect the homogenizing forces that would prefer internet entrepreneurs bow down before the superior and ‘proper’ culture espoused by the financial markets. Though the Silicon Valley culture will not likely displace the traditional American business culture, it has legitimized itself as an authentic cultural expression which the previously dominant culture can no longer deny.
Having used Zuckerberg and Page as an excuse to discuss some of the nuances of how cultures work (or the opposite), my very simple point here is that all leaders are products of a context from which they have derived a culture. Leaders therefore can only really be understood not as maverick de-contextualized warriors but instead as simultaneous proponents and disrupters of cultures. Though they shine individually their success is due to their inclusion of and ability to change larger collectives. A study of leadership that doesn’t include context and culture is necessarily inconclusive, since the leader can only be defined once those other two criteria are understood. Did I just take a lot of words to say something simple? Yes I did. Goodnight.
Next Reflection: Leadership and Self-awareness