• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Leadership, liberty and the crisis of authority

I remember participating in a NATO sponsored workshop in 2002 on the psychological impact of terrorism.

One of the challenges thrown at the participants was to imagine they were facing a major incident akin to 9/11 and to decide who could be trusted with the task of informing the public about what had happened and what needed to be done. In other words, who would provide communicative leadership at a time when society was facing an unprecedented catastrophe?

The very posing of this question caught most of the participants unaware. It was evident that many of the elected leaders of European nations would prove unsuitable for this task. Could the Italian people trust the reassurances of a Berlusconi? How would the Greeks or the Belgians respond to the instructions of their prime ministers?

Even the UK-based participants were at a loss and suggested someone like the TV broadcaster Trevor Macdonald should be assigned this task because his words were more trustworthy than those of officially designated political leaders.

Since this workshop, I have become far more aware of the absence of leadership than its presence. Dramatic events like the Eurozone crisis continually remind me of the question posed at that NATO workshop: Where do you look for effective leadership? Similar queries are posed by people in a businesses, public sector organisations, and cultural institutions.

That there is a widespread recognition of the feeble state of leadership is demonstrated by the flourishing of a veritable industry devoted to its cultivation. Seminars, training courses and conferences promise to turn uninspiring executives into dynamic leaders. Go to any good book shop and you will see dozens of texts with titles like The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow them and People Will Follow You.

Alternatively you can learn everything that there is to know by reading The Leadership Book: How to Deliver Outstanding Results or How to Lead: What You Actually Need to Do to Manage, Lead and Succeed. For the down to earth there is Leadership: Plain and Simple and for the touchy-feely amongst you the book to read is Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.

There is only one small problem with these self-help texts: there is no formula for authoritative leadership. Experience shows there are many things in life that need to be learned but cannot be taught. Sadly, leadership is not a skill that can be learned from clever teachers. If only it could be acquired through attending a training course we would all be leaders. Rather, it is a quality and attribute gained through learning from experience and the struggle of life.

The art of leadership

Back in the ancient times, it was recognised that authoritative leadership was tied to the exercise of certain characteristics, particularly the willingness to initiate. In fact, the ancient Greek word for government, arche, in its etymological sense means the beginning or a person who initiates or commences. It means a person taking steps in such a manner that others will follow – a fundamental attribute of a leader.

The Latin word for authority - auctoritas - also hints at the importance of initiation. It means many things – such as to author – but above all it means to initiate, and those individuals who have auctoritas enjoy the authority, the personal prestige that they have gained through this act. Reading of the Roman classics shows that those with auctoritas possess the power and influence that come from being trusted and respected for their capacity to initiate and lead.

The good news is that gaining such an authority is not confined to a tiny group of extraordinary individuals. Authoritative leadership is not dependent on attributes that we associate with charisma and natural flair. Instead it is a quality gained through addressing tasks seriously and assuming responsibility for them. Like any art, it involves the synthesis of the intellect and the passions. From the ancient to modern times, history shows that individuals gain authority by putting themselves on the line and setting an example. In this sense leadership – whether through words or behaviour – always involves an act of communication.

An effective leader is not someone who attracts attention to himself or herself but who is seen as the personification of something important – something that is oriented towards issues that touch us all. Authoritative leaders are not so much charismatic communicators but people who establish a real presence by giving meaning to society’s aspirations. Presence is not so much about the person but about the person forcefully expressing the direction to be followed to confront challenges. Such a presence is established through conviction, commitment and taking responsibility.

As an exercise in authoritative leadership, context determines the establishment of such a presence, the principle virtue of which is the willingness to develop the capacity for exercising judgment. The ability to make judgment calls requires what Aristotle called the virtue of phronesis, the kind of practical wisdom we gain through experience and engagement with the world around us.

Aristotle took the view that there are a range of human actions whose objective could not be achieved by following prescribed formulas. Pottery making can be pursued with technical knowledge (techne), but healing the sick required practical wisdom (phronesis). For Aristotle, phronesis was the most significant intellectual virtue because developing the capacity for exercising moral judgment allowed the exercise of other virtues of character.

The reason why Aristotle’s insight is crucial today is because practical wisdom helps leaders face uncertainty and judge what needs to be done. It is only through the act of judgment that uncertainty can be transformed into risks that can be managed through calculation. Most importantly, it is through practical wisdom that leaders gain the confidence to deviate, when necessary, from the script and exercise discretion.

The heart of the problem of leadership is also one of the paradoxes of our times: Although we continually demand effective leadership, we organise public life in such a manner as to make its exercise very difficult. There are powerful institutional barriers to exercising discretion and judgment. Sometimes it appears almost as if much of the public sector and sections of commerce have become a discretion-free zone. Individual initiative is continually subjected to the tyranny of paper trails, risk assessment documents, codes of practice written to a template, and micro-managers.

From a bureaucratic perspective, the proliferation of rules is seen as ‘best practice’. From a wider future-oriented humanist perspective, such rules convey suspicion about people’s capacity to judge and lead. It prefers the guidance provided by a manual to the leadership of someone prepared to initiate and judge.

Exercising discretion is discouraged because it is too perceived as too risky. Yet discretion – based on tacit knowledge acquired from experience and on best available knowledge – is the only way to manage uncertainty. Through acts of judgment, uncertainty is transformed into a problem that can be confronted and managed. In turn, our capacity to judge develops through experience, and as with every endeavour, the more varied and extensive its practice, the better we get at cultivating the virtue of phronesis.

The final point about leadership is intimately linked to gaining authority. In every walk of life, a leader is an authoritative figure. However, society seems to have a problem with authority and invariably sees it as something to be restrained and controlled. That’s one reason why Western societies have become so obsessed with making rules. Instead of cultivating authoritative leadership, we one-sidedly rely on rules explicitly designed to penalise taking initiative.

Most of us complain about the corrosive consequence of society’s addiction to regulating economic and public affairs. However, a far more insidious form of regulation is the less visible tendency to formalise daily encounters, including inter-personal affairs. This juridification of everyday life discourages taking responsibility, using discretion, and making judgement calls. It is as if the managers of public and private institutions have read Aristotle and decided that their mission was to abolish the exercise of phronesis. In effect, they have created a culture that discourages people from assuming the responsibilities associated with leadership.

That is why we need to confront the current process-driven culture with one that is hospitable to risk-taking and the freedom to experiment and explore. Winning cultural support for the value of initiating and cultivating the virtue of phronesis is essential for resolving the current crisis of leadership. Such a project requires many attributes, but above all, it requires taking our freedoms far more seriously.

This is an extract of last night’s Centre for Independent Studies’ 2011 John Bonython Lecture. The CIS is Australasia’s leading independent public policy think tank, devoted to fostering a free and open society through classical liberal ideals. The extract is also published here and here.

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