I don’t trust books about “leadership.” Such books invariably include lots of anecdotes about great leaders and the things that inspired them to become great leaders, yet none of those anecdotes ever seems to recount any of them having read a book about leadership. And that ought to tell us all we need to know about such books.
But more than that, I don’t trust such books (or magazines) because I think the main function of this sub-genre of self-help literature is dubious and kind of evil. Books on leadership are written for and read by people in positions of “leadership,” which is to say by people with fancy titles, offices and salaries. Which is to say, they are written for and read by people haunted by the crippling fear of impostor syndrome.
That’s not quite it, though. Impostor syndrome is a neurosis based on irrational fear and the inability to accept that one has legitimately earned and achieved one’s successes. But the target audience for “leadership” books and magazines isn’t dealing with a neurosis. Their fears are legitimate. They know their privilege truly is unearned and unmerited. They know they actually are impostors.
That’s why they’re so desperate to gobble up books about “leadership,” hoping to learn the Six Secrets or the Seven Habits that might provide some defense when that inevitable knock at the door finally comes. They’re hoping to legitimize their position as “leaders” after the fact, and to do so they’re willing to read anything, subscribe to any journal, attend any seminar, follow any guru — do almost anything short of, you know, actually leading.
This was illustrated in that report by Dana Milbank that I linked to yesterday on “Heritage’s ugly Benghazi panel.”
The right-wing PR-tank’s session had worked itself into an anti-Muslim frenzy of hate-driven conspiracy theorizing. The lies being told in that room went unchallenged until:
Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, stood in the back of the room and asked a question in a soft voice. “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she told them. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
Panelist Brigitte Gabriel of a group called ACT! for America pounced. She said “180 million to 300 million” Muslims are “dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization.” She told Ahmed that the “peaceful majority were irrelevant” in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and she drew a Hitler comparison: “Most Germans were peaceful, yet the Nazis drove the agenda and as a result, 60 million died.”
“Are you an American?” Gabriel demanded of Ahmed, after accusing her of taking “the limelight” and before informing her that her “political correctness” belongs “in the garbage.”
“Where are the others speaking out?” Ahmed was asked. This drew an extended standing ovation from the nearly 150 people in the room, complete with cheers.
The panel’s moderator, conservative radio host Chris Plante, grinned and joined in the assault. “Can you tell me who the head of the Muslim peace movement is?” he demanded of Ahmed.
“Yeah,” audience members taunted, “yeah.”
Ahmed answered quietly, as before. “I guess it’s me right now,” she said.
This is what leadership looks like.
The members of that Heritage panel couldn’t recognize that because they imagine that they are themselves leaders. For them, a “leader” is someone with a title, an office and a large paycheck. Leaders give orders, they hire and fire other people — little people, non-leader types. They invite one another to sit on panels. They expect deference.
Brigitte Gabriel is the “founder, president and CEO” of her institution. (Anyone who feels the need for all those titles might as well add, “King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.”) Founders, presidents and CEOs think of themselves as leaders — people above other people whose only peers are others who bear such lofty titles. They cannot bear to be questioned or challenged by commoners and students who bear no titles.
But all the titled lords and ladies of that Heritage panel were wrong and Saba Ahmed was right. She may not have some aggrandizing title, but she stood up and spoke truth. They declared themselves to be leaders. She led.
That’s the same dynamic we saw last week with the dubiously titled magazine Leadership Journal. The Lords of Leadership were shaken when their appalling decision to publish a rapist’s memoir was challenged by a bunch of uppity young women. No one asked these women for their opinion. No one — by which they meant no “leaders,” no titled Lords, no presidents, founders, CEOs or senior pastors — wanted to hear what these women had to say. Such women were supposed to know their place, not to presume to challenge the judgement of leaders.
But the leaders and the experts on “leadership” were wrong and those women were right. They stood up and spoke truth, together, amplifying one another’s voices. They led.
One more example:
The man at the front of that phalanx of Alabama state troopers on the left is a “leader.” He had the title, the office, the uniform and the salary to prove it. He was a man who gave orders. And that’s what you can see him doing here — giving orders instead of leading, and refusing to listen to the uppity students who dared to challenge his authority.
That’s John Lewis and Hosea Williams at the head of the line of students on the right, showing us what actually leading actually looks like.
John Lewis could probably make a tidy sum by writing a self-help book for self-described “leaders.” But Lewis hasn’t done that. Instead of writing books about “leadership,” he’s written books about walking. Those books are well worth your time. The man knows how to walk.