The Myth of Leadership and the Domestication of America

OK, I expect this article will be controversial. Please understand I love Americans, I just hate your leaders. And I am very sympathetic with the plight of politically, socially and economically disenfranchised Americans, and this article is an expression of my sympathy and feelings of solidarity with you. Conservatives will call it anti-American; it is not.
One thing that seems to differentiate US culture from that of any other affluent country is the cult status of its leaders — especially political and business leaders. Unlike in Canada or Europe, disagreement or criticism of one’s boss in the US is treated as sacrilege — a career-limiting move. And while Canadian and European television programs and cartoonists savagely ridicule and caricature their political leaders, and Canadian and European media go out of their way to unnerve and challenge these leaders, their US counterparts seem to treat their ‘leaders’ with deference bordering on hero-worship. While Tony Blair is portrayed in the British press as an inept and clueless Bush lapdog (and worse), the mainstream US media seem unwilling to portray Bush as a spoiled, psychopathic illiterate coddled and protected from real facts by his secretive and fanatical neocon ‘managers’ (despite overwhelming evidence that that’s what he is).

American business leaders are treated with similar deference and wild adulation, as if they were direct descendants from God. Autobiographical business books ghost-written for insanely overpaid CEOs, pontificating on how to be a successful leader, sell like hotcakes. Case in point: The platitudinous blatherings of Rudolph Giuliani in his book Leadership, featuring chapters on The Importance of the Morning Meeting, Preparing Relentlessly, Making Everyone Accountable, Surrounding Yourself with Great People, Reflecting, then Deciding and on and on. Common sense that any five-year-old would know, sold with enormous success for $25.95 a copy.

Many studies have shown that leadership has little to do with organizational success — successful leaders, for the most part, just happened to be in the right place at the right time with a good group of people already working ‘for’ them (and when they move on to their next overpaid position, usually fail dismally to live up to expectations). No matter — with a high 7-figure annual income, they can retire after one serendipitous success and spare themselves and their adulators the embarrassment of their inability to repeat their divine performance.

Arrogant rock stars who write warmed over nursery rhymes, drug-addled sports celebrities pushing $200 sneakers made in Asian sweatshops, no-talent actors and actresses brainwashed by lunatic cults — whole programs are devoted to following the every move of these pathetic and egomaniacal clowns. MTV reportedly even has a program that just lists new celebrity endorsements. One of the newest terms in rap culture is ‘cross-dressing’, meaning the scandal of wearing more than one cult hero’s endorsed brand names at a time.

Why do Americans, uniquely, worship their leaders this way?

Peter Block, one of the founders of Organizational Development, thinks that, in business at least, it’s absurd:

ìLeadershipî is a well-developed misconception. The dominant belief is that the task of leadership is to set a vision, enroll others in it and hold people accountable through measurements and rewards. Itís a patriarchal system used to create high performance through centralization of power. Most leadership training focuses on how to be a good parent. We teach how to ìdevelopî people, as if they were ours to develop. We do a lot to create the notion that bosses are responsible for their people. All that parenting has the unintended side effect of creating deep entitlement and having employees stay frozen in their own development. Most management techniques are ways of controlling people so they feel good about being controlled.

These are the most common questions I get from my clients. ìHow do I get people to Öî and you can fill in the blank after that. My favorite is, ìHow do I get people on board with my ideas/visions/whatever.î My response is, ìHow do you know youíre in the boat?î These are the wrong questions. Theyíre the questions of a parent about recalcitrant children. As soon as
you start the sentence, youíre acting as a sovereign. All of these are components of the patriarchal way of thinking that dominates our culture. Put this in boldface: They are not your children. Once you realize that, real engagement is possible.

Block understands the essence of complex systems: No one is in control. What gets done (for better or worse) gets done as a result of the staggeringly complex interactions and personal decisions of everyone. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, far more energy is expended finding workarounds for incompetent management decisions and policies (without offending management, of course) than is spent implementing the odd intelligent insight that management, with all the resources at its disposal, ‘manages’ to come up with. Employees, and customers (who are often treated only slightly less paternalistically than employees), actually have almost all the good ideas that would be needed to make any organization much more successful, but it is taboo to listen to them, to even be accessible to them. That would make the leaders look weak, as if perhaps they don’t have all the answers. And that, of course, is unthinkable.

The same thing applies in the political and entertainment arenas. Politicians want you to believe they are in control, that they have all the answers, that you needn’t worry your pretty little head about anything. When something like Katrina or Iraq blows up in their face, and shows this to be a farce, they will immediately assign blame to someone else (ideally another leader). And the media, which make their living propagating these lies, working in close partnership with political leaders (who regulate their business) and business leaders (who pay their salaries with their ads), are not about to blow the whistle on the whole fraud. So whatever moronic gang of gangsters is sponsored by one of the big sportswear companies to grunt their juvenile drivel to the top of the charts, gets treated like royalty, interviewed and promoted as if they were leaders of their whole generation, even asked for their opinion on current events.

Sports stars who are, briefly, marginally better than their peers in one specific sport get paid thousands of times what those peers are paid and fawned over by the media as if they were the Second Coming. A tiny handful of actors who are bought starring roles by their rich parents or who serendipitously catch the eye of some movie mogul get paid thousands of times what their peers (and betters) are paid for ‘supporting’ roles, independent productions, and for providing the real talent — writing the words that the ‘stars’ merely spout (often amateurishly). Americans adulate newscasters, mouthpieces who don’t even have to act!

The conspiracy between absurdly overvalued, overrated and overcompensated ‘leaders’ and their masses of fawning followers, in business, in politics, in sports and entertainment (what used to be called ‘the arts’) just keeps rolling on with the media helping it along and keeping score.

This conspiracy could not continue without the complicity of the American people. Why do they put up with it? Americans are not stupid and, until recently, were no less informed than people in other affluent nations. Complexity is all about emergence, and about complicity, and as tempting as it may be there is no root cause, no group ‘to blame’ for what has led to this unwarranted gross inequality. And Americans have a history of skepticism. So what can account for this needless and unwarranted resignation of so many to low-class status in their own country?

My theory is that Americans (and perhaps the people of some struggling nations, like Iraq) have been domesticated. The word domesticated means, literally, ‘made property of the house’. The dogs that we (mostly) love today were domesticated over thousands of years from wolves. Anthropologists tell us that, in the early days of civilization, when people began settling in villages, wolves were attracted by the smell of their food, and started hovering around (the same thing is occurring today with polar bears). At first, villagers would drive them off with stones (or, presumably, kill them for food or fur). But the villagers had a soft spot for the young pups, and didn’t kill them (at least until they got older and had already bred). Evolution thus bred a successful offshoot of the wolf — the dog, which looked and acted eternally young and helpless, and so lived on at the pleasure of civilized humans, to the point now that there are too many dogs, and a scarcity of wolves, on our planet. Even old dogs have mostly floppy ears and a placid disposition, unlike their wolf contemporaries.

Many dogs, even in America, are, of course, mistreated (though much less so than in struggling nations like China where they are still semi-wild, eaten and killed for their fur in the millions — if that faux fur you bought comes from China, chances are the fur isn’t faux, at least not in the way you thought — don’t click this link if you’re squeamish). So what happens if a domestic dog, for whatever reason, rational to us or not, decides it doesn’t want to be ‘property of the house’? If it bites back, or flees, it is probably doomed to die — domestication was a one-way trip for dogs. There are some places where feral, ‘un-domesticated’ dogs exist, but it is a constant struggle against humans determined to exterminate them. The same is true for wild pigs and other once-domesticated feral creatures.

A notable exception, an animal that is domesticated and yet still wild, is the cat. Feral cats fare much better in the wild than most other domesticated creatures that have lost their independence from humans. It is not clear why the evolutionary path for cats left open a return to the wild. It may be that cats never really trusted humans in the first place (and those that did died young) so that the knack and the drive to return to the wild and keep the instincts and capabilities of independence alive was selected for.

Although the analogy is a bit tenuous, it seems to me that Americans are more trusting of their leaders, of those (way) higher up than they are in the pecking order, and hence, like the domestic dog, have given up much of their independence of thought and action for the creature comforts of the American Dream. This is more than a little ironic, of course, given the way in which the American republic began (with the leader-endorsed slaughter of the natives and then a revolutionary war against the leaders of the day). But for the last two centuries or more paternalistic leadership has been the American norm. They are, after all, called the founding fathers, and despite their propensity for slave ownership and other evils, are revered by most Americans to almost religious levels.

Why haven’t Europeans and Canadians become similarly domesticated? Perhaps because they have more recently had reason to distrust their ‘leaders’. Brutal despotism and imperialistic tendencies have a much longer and much more recent history in Europe than in America. Much of European history is the story of uprisings against arrogant, overprivileged and tyrannical ‘leaders’, and that continued in the 20th century.

Canadians have a much more peaceful history, but we have been threatened many times (and are threatened again today) by our mighty, arrogant, imperialistic neighbour to the South. We look at their leaders with great distrust. Our Canadian leaders, if we were to be honest, don’t matter much — if the US wants our resources and our people, they will just take them, and we haven’t the capacity to resist (though we might well try). Many Canadians have also witnessed the arrogance of American bosses who are worshiped in the US, who clearly see their Canadian ‘property’ as nothing more than a cheap way to generate profits for repatriation to the American fatherland, and who treat their more independent-minded Canadian staff as ill-mannered children. So as a result, I think, Canadians tend towards more of a European, skeptical attitude towards ‘leaders’.

Canadians and Europeans are a bit more like cats, then, and Americans a bit more like dogs, in the continuum of human domesticity. The constant undercurrent of separatism in Europe and Canada is a constant reminder that, for the most part, we don’t like or trust those in charge. The cute fridge magnet reminds us of the difference: Dogs have masters, cats have staff. We are still ‘wild’ enough to believe our leaders work for us.

So what is a patriotic American to do, when if he leaves because he no longer wants to live as property of the privileged class he is called a traitor, a coward. If you don’t like it, change it, don’t run away, he’s told. It’s easy for a cat to tell a dog to stop putting up with abuse from its ‘owner’, to just leave. The poor dog no longer has it in his genes to be feral. He has trusted the master too much, and for too long, to change now. He must respect and obey his ‘leaders’. That is the only life he knows.

Charts adapted from Fire & Ice: The US, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, by Michael Adams

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17 Responses to The Myth of Leadership and the Domestication of America

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Wow ! You know, dave .. if I were a rich guy I would pay you a salary of $100 k a year to take some of your core themes and blog posts and turn them into one book a year. I read lots and lots of books on subjects similar to your areas of interest and exposition, and you are the equal at least of the big thinkers and strong writers that I read.More people need, in my opinion, to read your writings. Are you aware of .. makes it very easy to take material you have written and turn the writings into self-published books.

  2. Dave Smith says:

    Dave: I love this post. We need YOU to keep taking this kind of radical, incisive analysis to clarify things with your unique vision. We need to break down these assumptions that are so embedded in the American culture that, like fish in water, we have no idea that we’re swimming in a cesspool. We only know that it has gotten dark and cloudy. Keep being controversial. Please!

  3. Yes, Yes, Yes! …and a little bit more thinking about what makes us different down here. First, we are quite a bit bigger (in numbers anyway) than the places you mention. So “national” media is bigger. It’s like real estate, one guy sells little bungalows in a city neighborhood and another guy sells mansions in the ritzy suburbs. They have to do just about the same work with clients, but the guy in the ritzy neighborhood makes a lot more dollars on the standard % commission. So size creates this illusion. And like you say about leaders, the big money goes to the guy lucky enough to be born into (and get to know) this hood or that one.Size (of the US) also means that you’re going to have to go a long way to escape. Obviously not true in Canada, but in Europe you don’t have to move as far to “leave” any one country. Borders have been a bit more fluid in Europe as well. At least in Canada you get a good secession conversation every now and then, and have a bit of language messiness. I’ve been wondering aloud for a couple of years about secession of states down here and people look at me like I suggested we vacation on Mars. And, maybe we’ll be different as Spanish gets a better hold on big chunks of our South.For now, the whole place really is a bigger, firmer box. Might it be nothing more than the sheer momentum of so many bodies? Reminds me of my third marathon, the one with no training (dumb). Started walking at halfway point, but in that flow of 20k or 30k bodies, was impossible psychologically to get off the course. Momentum matters, I think. Personally, I’d like to see us in smaller pieces.Meanwhile, this all also reminds me of a different sort of momentum you have up there in Canada. So, tell me again, why is it that the Queen is still on the notes printed by the Bank of Canada? (grin)

  4. cindy says:

    I think while I was in the US from 1989-2001, one aspect of me and the leaders (or managers) that confused me most is the fact that I should call them by their first name. Instead of as in Asia or Europe (things might change now as the world is being more and more Ameiricanized via TV and adopt their behaviours right or wrong) that we would generally add a Mr. or Sir, Mrs. when we addressed our superior or elders… In that act alone, ME the silly junior (especially when one joins the US office cultures and politics) thinking that I am now free to speak as an equal to my manager !! WRONG !!! They cast you down, they punished you for thinking you are as smart, if not smarter than them … The US is a funny place. They want you to believe you are equal, you live in THE ONLY FREE country in the world, and yet they are the least free, least equal societies of the developed world. I valued the time I spent in the US because now I can look at it from a distance, and understand why I did not fit in that place.

  5. Bush as a spoiled, psychopathic illiterate coddled and protected from real facts by his secretive and fanatical neocon ‘managers’ (despite overwhelming evidence that that’s what he is). When I read a comment like this, I am disappointed yet, it perfectly represents much of what the article is all about. Just ask yourself one question, who would you rather trust with “the nuclear button”? George W., Paul Martin or Jack Layton? Anyone decribes as above should not have the power and yet George W. does and he has resisted using it when it could be the simple answer to the middle east question.The reason that Canadians and some Europeans differ in the adulation of their leaders is that in the USA, the leaders do it for the sake of the people and take significant personal risk and minimal reward to do so. The govern they do not rule. In Canada we are a ruled people. Ruled by temporary benevolent dictators that expect that we will do there bidding. We, as sheep being led by the shepard do little more than complain. We complain in the news, we complain in Blogs, we call our rulers names…but in the end we defer to their will and follow their dicatates and models of social engineering with little resistance. In the USA, each individual recognizes that they have a voice and that it is counted. Those that choose to go into public office must meet the wishes of the majority of people or they will quickly be removed.Thank God that in Canada and the USA we do not suffer any more persecution than being labeled as a right or left wing (and now straight or gay) or religious thinker. In some countries we would be killed for those same thoughts. Ruled or governed, let’s enjoy and preserve what we have!

  6. la says:

    This all happened when the media ownership rules were changed. Can you say corporate media? Most Americans do not love their business or political leaders, I assure you. The American media is in many ways nothing more than a propaganda machine. I always love to watch MS (microsoft) NBC (General Electric) debate the Iraq War or W’s approval ratings. The whole thing is a badly scripted play. Don’t look to the American media as an unbiased source any more.

  7. Yes, Cindy. When I taught Open Space Technology in Singapore, all the participants said “oh, it might not work here because we have so much hierarchy.” I told them just what you say, GM is not a hierarchy. India is of course a cobbling of so many states, and many other Asian countries are small. But what about China? What is it like there? I thought Japanese organizations ran on a pretty rigid hierarchy, but don’t know for sure. So I’m curious to know which part of Asian you’re talking about and wonder if what you’re saying is true in a place as big as China or as developed as Japan. Or maybe we corrupted Japan in the rebuilding? Dunno. Finally, as a nation of immigrants, people who had the confidence to up and leave someplace else, I wonder if it might be “not okay” to question the smarts of anyone, because everyone believes so strongly in their own power and smarts. Bosses just have more power to enforce such things, but what is Michael Moore if not a factory worker who refused to be told he was no longer valuable. So this ‘don’t tell me what to do’ shows up in the formation of unions, in new businesses, and other movements, including cross-country migration old east to new west. This spirit pre-dates the Constitution work as described in the Mansfield piece, and explains it. Founding fathers looked around and said ‘we got a lot of crazy yahoos here, can’t take away their guns, but better make some laws.’ Makes me wonder how Australian organizations function, too, but of course their size and relative isolation makes for a more humbling experience in the pacific region. Strange mix of influences we have here in US, for sure, though.

  8. boletus joe says:

    Interesting reading, I’m just an old mushroom picker. and I travel all over the western part of this continent. If people could just get “Unplugged” from their total dependence on TV, Grocery store chains… all the franchises, and having to keep up with appearances. The whole system is wrong wrong wrong…Like all history it is destined to REPEAT itself… The only question is WHEN. I can’t believe that there has not been another Civil war in the US of A. The poor man is just that close to it. All I see is the Oprah’s feeling good about helping all their countrymen, while giving away free products to all of the audience, in order to perpetuate the great American way. and the Povitch guy showing (embarrassing) himself and everyone who watches that s**t. And you (US) expect to have relevance in the rest of the world…. Most people just want somewhere warm and safe and enough to eat…. Well we have that and a whole lot more….So why are all these people going without in this part of the world. There is enough to feed everyone six times over…house them and educate them. If we survive , I’m sure this time will be looked back at as the CRAZY time.This will probably be deleated… I don’t know all the BIG words…. But it dosn’t mean I don’t see what’s going on…Boletus Joe

  9. darcy says:

    Well, that was an eye-opener! I don’t even know where to begin, but a little hobby horse of mine is observing the difference between “cat” people and “dog” people (I love them both). It began when I encountered over a short period a series of individuals who just hated cats, with a kind of irrational intensity that seemed to verge on paranoia (I mean, how can one be so afraid of such a small animal?). All of these people were quite domineering in all their relationships (one guy had the most cowed, “well-trained” dog I ever knew and he was a tremendous bully) and I concluded that they just couldn’t handle the “independence” of cats; there was only space in their psyche for submission. This idea of “domesticity” sheds a whole new light on it. Dogs, because they are so domesticated will tolerate a phenomenal amount of abuse (loyalty, it is called) whereas a cat will just split and find a better place to live. There has been a meme going around which likens the Dem Party in the US to an abused wife. Totally cowed (an interesting metaphor since a dairy cow barely resmembles a bison, its genetic forebearer) and not able to stand up and speak truth to power.A lot to chew on here.

  10. If there is a cult status, and I’m not sure I agree there is, I’d say it’s a carefully manipulated distraction from the fact that they’re the puppets of the wealthy.

  11. cindy says:

    To Michael Herman: I grew up in Malaysia with Chinese parentage. Spent the next 15 years in Europe, then 13 in the US. I worked in S. Korea for about a year. Compared S. Korea to Malaysia, I would say S. Korea is more structured and hierarchy. I would say S. Korea and Japan is much more similar to one another. And perhaps Taiwan is much more similar to Japan and S. Korea than China! They are all different. And I absolutely agree what works in the US (or Europe) don’t necessary will work in other countries especially in countries such as Korea or Japan or China. And European thinking to adopt American concepts must first understand America, for example, is a mono-lingual, mono-culture nation (I know there are immigrants from all over the world), whereas Europe consists of DIFFERENT nations, DIFFERENT culture, DIFFERENT language. Concepts such as Open Space might work very well in UK or Ireland, but not necessary in other European countries.

  12. the really amazing thing about open space, cindy, is that it actually does work in all kinds of places, all over europe, usa, australia, all the asian countries you mention, latin america, africa… it has different flavors, in africa it’s likened to ‘meeting under the tree.’ in the us, we talk about ‘self-organization in more scientific ways.’ but the practice itself seems to be very much a human rather than cultural phenomenon.

  13. cindy says:

    Hello Michale,True … ‘the practice itself seems to be very much a human rather than cultural phenomenon’. But what/who creates/influences cultures? What is human without cultures? What is cultures without human? I don’t think it is something that we can seperate. I would not say Open Space is not for any countries except US. But I doubted it will be as useful even though I know there are many European would disagree with me totally. But they look at a certain ‘range’ of the society, whereas I tend to look at the less educated, less advantage levels of any societies where one should really concentrate in providing the most ‘needed’ skills/knowledge/push for them in making advances. And often time these groups of people are so much ‘disjointed’ with the ‘world’ that creates ideas/terminologies such as KM, innovation, Open Space etc. that there is hardly any link to ‘bridge’ them in. Therefore we are seeing (at least I am seeing) the gap is getting larger and larger between these two worlds. I am not a pessimist. But I am pushing (in my own small way) to see more though given to the people that are lagging behind. We are not all born with the same advantages. Most unfortunate. Even myself is way, way, lagging behind because of the disadvantages I was given at the start of my life. Would Open Space really works in an environment such as a big corporation in the US? How often one’s idea being squashed in an environment (see my first post) that staff with managers and directors that do not welcome suggestions? I worked with a manager that claimed she has open door policy. Yes. Her door was always open but she was never free to see you? I am not anti-open space. But I think ‘change’ has to come from both ends. Top and bottom. If the Top only ‘mouth’ the terms to show that they are inline with the trend, the push from the bottom would never work. It has to meet in the middle.

  14. well, cindy… openspace has worked well inside of big companies and other bureaucracies. it’s also worked well with non-readers/non-writers in haiti. yes, human and culture do inform each other. i see culture as the aggregatation and articulation of individual humans. humans make many cultures. and behind all of those is a lot of individual uniqueness and also a bit of sameness. what i meant is that open space works with that sameness, rather than depending on the downstream diversities of bodies and cultures. before top and bottom, too.

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon, Dave, Michael H, Cindy, la, Boletus, Darcy & Barbara — thanks for your comments and clarifications, and the discussion of Open Space.

  16. chris says:

    You had me, then you lost me. Somewhere after Giuliani and the rant against the ‘overvalued, overrated, overcompensated’, your rant became distasteful (I bet you’re not a huge fan of the free market, because these personalities get what the market deems they are worth). I wanted to read more, but I couldn’t bear it.I am Canadian by birth, American by choice. Painting Americans with such a wide brush, and claiming this hero worship to be uniquely American is baseless. Every country and society has their misplaced heroes — I can’t think of a great Canadian example, but I’m sure there are some. You act as though Canadians don’t fawn over their own athletes, actors, and news anchors, and pay them princely sums. Right.I understand that you may not see it from a distance, but there is significant defiance in the US against political leaders, and those held up as leaders by the media. But when the whole basis of your argument is that Americans are “domesticated dogs”, you’re only going to piss people off. I’m sure that won you lots of points in the “As Canadian as possible, under the circumstaces” crowd, but your point was so far off base that I actually found myself defending Bush (he’s not psychopathic or illiterate). And I HATE it when people make me defend Bush.

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