(This morning I received a message from my dear British friend Andrew Campbell, expressing frustration with a couple of people he looked up to, and riffing off the anti-expert, anti-’leader’ tone of my post yesterday on coping with complexity. Here is how I replied.)
Over the years I’ve met a lot of ‘leaders’, from senior business executives in large corporations to revered authors to senior government officials. A lot of them have the act right: the charismatics, the leaders that people expect to have all the answers, act as if they do (though they proffer few if their speech-writer or editor hasn’t vetted them). The good speakers know how to use the right words with the right inflection while still not really saying anything except to reassure you that you are right. The good writers know how to take their one interesting new idea and build a $20 book or $1000 seminar around it, and some of them even know enough not to talk about it without rehearsed scripts, because generally they don’t talk as well as they write.
The business leaders, some of whom are astonishingly dimwitted (in my observation, people are promoted because they match the image of those doing the promoting, not on merit) just give orders and aren’t foolish enough to try to justify them (they have staff for that). What’s funny to me is that when ‘leaders’ admit to being unextraordinary, when they dare to be authentic, people are usually bitterly disappointed. They believe their adored leader just had an off night, and will be ‘themselves’ again when they put the make-up back on (and may it please be soon). ‘Leaders’ can’t, daren’t, take the costume and the greasepaint off.
As much as our world is built on hierarchy and the acceptance that some people are just meant to be leaders and the rest just meant to be followers, my experience is that intelligence and practicality and judgement and emotional wisdom and imagination and creativity are pretty evenly distributed across the global gene pool, and the ability to articulate or otherwise apply whatever one is good at is mostly a learnable skill. That’s why I have no use for leaders, and believe the future rests in the hands of facilitators — people who are able to skillfully help a group of ‘ordinary’ people do their best collaborative work. Facilitators are not teachers; they are from the unschooling school of encouraging people to learn how to learn for themselves (or relearn how to learn if they are victims of the education system, the workplace system and/or the media).
I hold mentors in equal esteem to facilitators. I mean mentors in the sense of sounding boards and active, empathic listeners for individuals. The word ‘mentor’ is not quite right, since it connotes smarter-than; the best mentors in my experience only speak to help clarify, or to offer advice if it is asked for (and that advice is usually more like possible avenues of exploration or questions to ponder than “what you should do”, since no mentor worth her salt would presume to know what someone else should do). Sometimes a mentor’s gift is just to be present, to listen with compassion and appreciation. Sometimes it’s to demonstrate, a suggestion of “you might try this”.
I confess I am a terribly facilitator (I even took a test that confirmed this). I can’t retain my objectivity and refrain from proffering content. But thanks to my imagination and years of reading and thinking about a broad range of subjects, I’m often a pretty good content provider in a well-facilitated group.
I am not much better as a mentor, in the sense I describe above, since while I’ve learned to be a better listener, I often can’t resist throwing out unsolicited ideas and advice, and I’m not terribly empathic (too unclear, still, about my own feelings, and often incompetent at conveying them, quietly).
What I am, alas, is a visionary — someone who excels at imagining what is possible. Not a very useful skill in an age when we are utterly preoccupied with fighting dragons.