We Need Experimenters, Not Leaders

power of ideas
For the last eight years, the US treasury has been plundered by the thieves of the Bush Administration, doling out handouts to corporatist friends (and undoing legislation and refusing to enforce what little corporatist regulation remains) in return for campaign contributions, future jobs and other favours. Bush has pursued an unjustifiable private and personal ideological war that has cost a million lives and a trillion dollars. The US is now technically bankrupt, public services have been hollowed out to the point they are dysfunctional to non-existent, and the country’s reputation internationally is in tatters.

This is the legacy of a regime that promised a new form of leadership both before and after 9/11. There could be no better demonstration that relying on self-serving and self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ to do things for you is a ruinous path.

Yet what are Americans rallying around now? Different self-serving and self-proclaimed leaders ambiguously promising ‘change’. How far will the cult of leadership in the US (and it’s spreading worldwide, like a toxic disease) go?

In business, ‘leaders’ are paid obscene sums of money (tens to hundreds of millions of dollars each per year) to offshore jobs, reduce quality and services, close down operations, merge with other organizations with their own self-serving ‘leaders’, and otherwise cripple the US economy in the interests of ‘maximizing shareholder value’ (no accident that these ‘leaders’ are paid mostly in shares, so it’s their value they’re maximizing).

Millions blindly follow religious ‘leaders’ who preach hatred and suppression of basic human rights and freedoms, and the popularity of such ‘charismatic’ despots is growing by leaps and bounds.

Drug addled professional actors, singers and athletes attract groupies and awards and fortunes and the adoration and emulation of millions, as part of the celebrity leadership cult, and this popularity can often be parlayed into political or business ‘leadership’.

And universities charge extravagant sums for ‘executive’ programs that presume to teach ‘leadership and management’, while meanwhile, because of a desperate shortage of entrepreneurial skills, most graduates can look forward to a life of wage slavery working for these ‘executives’, many of whom had their ‘leadership’ positions bought for them by rich parents.

As I reported a couple of years ago, Peter Block, one of the founders of the discipline of Organizational Development, thinks that, in business at least, it’s absurd:

“Leadership” 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. It’s 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 “develop” 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. “How do I get people to ’Ķ” and you can fill in the blank after that. My favorite is, “How do I get people on board with my ideas/visions/whatever.” My response is, “How do you know you’Äôre in the boat?” These are the wrong questions. They’re the questions of a parent about recalcitrant children. As soon as you start the sentence, you’re 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.

We don’t need ‘leadership’ or ‘leaders’. What we need is experimenters.The way to create working models that work better than the dysfunctional ones we have now, in a complex system where no one is in control and no one has the answers, is to try things. A lot of small-scale experiments, bold, different, even wacky. And then compare notes with each other about what works (and why) and what doesn’t (and why not).

That will allow the successful experiments to spread, virally, and be adapted and improved. Eventually, bottom-up, it will allow us to create decentralized community-based self-managed political, economic, educational, and social systems that actually work well, for each community.

Unlike most ‘leaders’, experimenters are:

  • collaborators: they don’t do anything alone
  • facilitators and coaches: they help others to learn and discover how to do things better
  • demonstrators: more than just communicators, they show how it works and what it means
  • ideators: they imagine what’s possible, and tell stories to bring those ideas to life
  • innovators: they take those good ideas and realize them, make them real
  • researchers: they study what’s been done, in nature, by other cultures and communities, and what’s needed, and spread that knowledge
  • connectors: they bring people together who were meant to work together
  • model-builders: they design and build something that can be understood, replicated and adapted by others
  • founders: they start new things — enterprises, communities, different ways to do important things; they build something new rather than criticizing what exists

That’s what we need. We won’t find it in one or a few people. We have to find it within all of us. To do that we have to give up on ‘leaders’ and take charge of our own lives, collaboratively, as peers. Who’s ‘leading’ in government, in business, in religious and educational and social organizations doesn’t matter.

The power is in all of us.

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10 Responses to We Need Experimenters, Not Leaders

  1. Hi Dave,Excellent!!But again, somehow again people want to be shown the way or someone takes power and starts directing…This is probably the reason that things are the way they are…How do we all of us together realize what you stated in your essay? This is the hard part.Thanks,Srinath

  2. I have to offer a different view of leadership. The definition you are using was made by people desperate to follow someone else’s ‘lead’ or basically to do what they are told by people they assume are more knowledgable. People have been taught to believe that they are stupid. Then they are taught the strategy for dealing with that is to spend most of their lives trying to hide their ‘stupidity’, by adopting the opinions of larger groups or louder individuals. Safety in numbers. Leadership is really the act of taking away obstacles to allow people to fully reach their potential. Our educational system (No child left behind) represents the passing of tests, which is all the current funding policies reward. Any savant can pass a test but do you want an idiot leading the way? Education is about learning how to learn. Critical thinking and problem solving.When people stop following, leadership roles change from false prophets to intelligent people helping others to progress with fewer bumps in the road. It isn’t a top down model just as the sale of bad products isn’t a top down model. If we stopped buying it, they’d stop making it. Leadership is more mentoring than directing. Normal people have the drive to progress. Bad teachers instil fear of change, thus creating followers. Good teachers are actually ‘leader’ types.Grass roots education is at the base to influence that massive group of individuals needing to be part of the group – any group. And there is a large number of self-promoters (not the same as leaders) willing to enlist them. We denigrate real leadership by calling some of these fools ‘leaders’.Teaching individualism rather than a hive mentality will lead to the greatest positive results. Too many are willing to ‘die’ for the community. Who is willing to live for it? Individualists know instinctively to whom they need to look for goods and services, neighbors and lovers, which complement their abilities and lead to flourishing communities. They tend to meet accidentally but it is no accident when they join together.Barbara

  3. John says:

    Hi, Im from Melbourne in the Land of Oz.Please check out these three references which have relevance to this theme plus your blog altogether.1. http://www.ispeace723.org/everybodyallatonce2.html2. http://www.coteda.com/fundamentals/index.html3. http://www.dabase.org/radicpol.htm

  4. Kate McMahon says:

    “We don’t need ‘leadership’ or ‘leaders’. What we need is experimenters”.I think what you suggests makes sense – a leader is supposed to know the answers, they’re expected to be wiser and more experienced than the rest of us – whereas an experimenter doesn’t need to ‘know’ anything, an experimenter can be anyone, an experimenter can focus on questions; and it’s only by asking questions that we can grow, and that we can achieve real change.As Bruce Mau exhorts in “An Incomplete Manifesto of Growth”:Ask stupid questions. Growth is fueled by desire and innocence. Assess the answer, not the question. Imagine learning throughout your life at the rate of an infant.I’ve quoted this post (at length) in my blog “one Sustainable Block” because I think it sums up what my project is about. I’m trying to design a way to retrofit my neighbourhood to make it sustainable (Zero Carbon, Zero waste, no mains water). Is it possible? I have no idea – but I’m willing to play around, test theories, ask stupid questions. Yes, lets experiment!My Blog:http://makemegreenplease.blogspot.com/2008/02/lets-experiment-ask-stupid-questions.html

  5. Your excellent post got me thinking about my experiences from working as a management “cog” in the machinery of a rather large corporation. My role was to help the organisation with its new IT system and as such reported direct to the “leadership” – the management team. This sort of thing is huge in terms of numbers of people, locations, business risks, investment needed, and changes in behaviour required permanently. Perhaps you could say it mirrors the task at hand we all face: introducing major changes into an interconnected, technical and financial infrastructure, with widely accepted – rules of the game

  6. Mark Matchen says:

    As soon as I saw the title of this post, I knew I was going to like it. Wrong – I love it.First, I should say that I used to work with Dave, and even those years ago, he was practicing what he preaches now. Dave was a partner in the firm and I was a lowest-rank consultant, but there was no hierarchy to his approach. I’ve never been in an environment where my input was as seriously invited and considered as it was with him. This allowed me to grow rapidly, and it also removed any instinct to reject or block the guidance from Dave, which is a good thing because he’s a pretty smart guy.Now I’m a high school English teacher, but with the “baggage” of years in tech. According to the model of the education world, I’m not cut from leadership timber. I’m not the sort to play vice-principal, slapping my colleagues on the wrist continuously. I abhor the process whereby principals and vice-principals observe a class session, review planning documents, and then lecture on shortcomings. It all assumes there’s one right way to do things (which, interestingly, is redefined every seven or so years) and that deviations are punishable.On the other hand, flying beneath the radar, I am well known as a source of ad-hoc training for teachers who want to upgrade their tech skills and explore ways to enhance their teaching practice with technology. I have managed to tap into a shadowy parallel universe in my school board that avoids the standard leadership mode and invents the future by experimenting, sharing and respecting one another. I was recently selected for a skunkworks (a word a learned from Dave) project that seeds a tiny number of teachers with a pile of classroom technology – just to see what they’ll do with it. I was taken aback when the “leader” of this project (I should mention that Microsoft is a sponsor, not with cash but with technical resources) said there would be no traditional oversight or benchmarks. Instead, there would be collaboration and discussion, and asharing of best practices. In other words, no disincentive to experiment, and experiment I will.Leadership isn’t unnecessary, but it is often very badly defined, and it can function to stifle results instead of getting them. Dave’s post should be required reading.Mark Matchen

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Good points, and I think what many mean by “leadership” may be morphing to temporal and temporary … someone or someones have to instantiate, and there has to be enough interst generated to create some sustaining momentum enough to gain additional interest and energy.

  8. Jon Husband says:

    And by “someone or someones have to instantiate” I do not mean top-down by default .. can be sideways in from the edges, or sideways out from the centre, or bottom-up and sideways, etc.

  9. Patry says:

    True leadership stirs and empowers people to get involved and create the change they want to see. It also helps them believe that they can.

  10. minh says:

    experimenters are/must be very good observers.

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