Today, I have a few more thoughts about leadership. Then, maybe, I will follow a different star for a while.
But first, thoughts on leadership. Not mine, actually. This first idea was inspired by a comment from a friend who has been following my blog for a long time – Renee-Lucie Benoit. Commenting on my last post, she writes about how people are appointed to positions of power in a small Mayan village. Here’s what she wrote:
if I can remember correctly, a person was appointed to the position of power/judgeship. They did not seek the position and if they accepted they were required to give away all their (meager) wealth and not allowed to accumulate any during their tenure. I guess the community supported them. (Reminds me of what Auda said in Lawrence of Arabia. “I am a river to my people.”) Anyway…. it was an honor to serve and the person was to acquit themselves in matters that concerned the community that best served the community.
Now, there seem to me to be a number of very sensible ideas there.
First, I really like the idea that anyone appointed to be a leader is required to give away everything they own. This has plenty of precedents in the world of religious service. Buddhist monks who own nothing but a saffron robe and a begging bowl. Christain monks and nuns who renounce worldly goods in order to lead a simple life of service and contemplation. This seems in stark contrast to the expenses culture that appears to permeate our modern Parliament. That edifice now seems to be full of career politicians. Largely middle-aged, white men who studied politics as an academic subject at university. The sort of men that view politics as a career option. It’s up there with doctor, banker, lawyer. It is a job that has status and certain perks. So, if you regard being a political leader as a “job”, you start to do the same sort of calculation that most people have to make about their work i.e. I would rather not be doing this activity (the job) but will continue to do so because I value the rewards it gives to me. Most commonly, the rewards for working are financial. Let’s face it, the majority of people get out of a nice, warm bed and go to work in order to earn the money to pay for the stuff they need/want in order to live. It’s an exchange. I give you something (my time), you give me something (your money) in return. And, as long as it feels like a fair exchange to both parties, everybody’s happy. But it entails a certain mind-set. A certain set of values. It requires that you think about your job in a certain way. Basically, your job is something that you do in order to survive. If you didn’t have to do it in order to earn money to buy food, then you wouldn’t do it. There are many other ways that you would rather be spending your time. Your job is something you put up with. A necessary evil.
But not everybody feels that way about the work they do. Some people feel driven to do it. They don’t have a choice in the matter. They are called to do what they do. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation. It’s what they feel they were born to do. They don’t do it because they get paid. Money is not what gets them out of bed and into work. You don’t become a vicar because the pay is good and it has a decent pension plan. If you are lucky, the people who teach your children will be of this sort. The same goes for nurses, doctors, fire-officers, soldiers, police, basically anybody in a position of public service.
Now, you would imagine that our political leaders are, themselves, in a position of public service. They are supposed to be there to improve the lives of those they represent, aren’t they? Ministers from all parties like to make a big thing about serving the public. They are our servants, aren’t they? So, why doesn’t it feel that way?
I would suggest that it has a lot to do with the mind-set of most politicians. They see their job as a career, rather than a vocation. “I do an important, difficult job, so I deserve people’s respect and an appropriate financial award.” To suggest to people with such an attitude that they should surrender all they own as a part of having the job would seem like utter madness. But it would be a great test of their fundamental values. “Do you want to do this job so much that you are prepared to renounce all your worldly goods to do it?” That would sort out those who genuinely feel a need to serve from those that just fall into a career in politics because it is simply expected of them or will look good on their CV or boost fragile egos.
And notice that, in the Mayan village, those elected to lead are not allowed to amass any subsequent wealth. No making sacrifices now but with an eye on future payback. Forget those sort of notions of wealth. What we need is a totally different mind-set. One that sees wealth as located somewhere other than in money. We need our political leaders to live in social housing, use public transport, shop at the local market, borrow a cup of sugar from us. Let’s see what Lao Tzu has to say about this in the Tao Te Ching.
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.
“If you want to be given everything, give everything up.” Got that, Boris?
I think any leader who has not had to do some sort of hands on, front line, community service in their life, ultimately does not understand what life is really about for so many people they lead. They are out of touch. Leadership doesn’t have to be unpaid but it should include direct experience of those tough jobs that are paid at minimum wage levels; or done on a voluntary basis.
I’m talking about things like changing the full adult nappies bursting with shit of someone who is unable to speak; finding shit on the floor and hidden at the back of the the cupboard under the sink of the elderly woman’s home you’ve gone to make supper for (in the allocated 1 hour slot, which is never enough time) and cleaning it up; cleaning someone else’s blood off the hospital floor of the maternity ward bathroom after you have just given birth to your dead baby; fighting to get a small grant for someone who has lost everything so that they can just buy some basic furniture for their bedsit; fighting to get a child bullied by racism accepted into the same school as their elder sibling, and failing because of unconscious bias on the appeals panel… I could go on.
When I worked for many years in Whitehall, I met many leaders. Most I found uninspiring, mainly those white middle aged males; and then the young graduate scheme bright young things, again often young men with big egos who were going to be fast tracked into leadership roles, putting forward major policy ideas, but who had clearly no respect for the wisdom.of an older, more senior woman, or very much in the way of front line life experience. But there were many good people too.
The leaders who I have worked with and for, the ones who really inspired me, were the ones who understood what it was like on the front line, and who were clearly trying to make changes to empower and respect those frontline workers.
Bring in compulsory community service for senior leaders. Make them clean up human faeces, or blood off the floor at work at least once in their careers.
I agree for the most part. People raised in the “manor” don’t usually know what it is like in the trenches. I am reminded of the (supposed) quote from Marie Antoinette (Well, then let them eat cake! But she was a teenager and teenagers aren’t known for understanding.) However, I think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He came from elite and yet he governed well, I think. Churchill was right for the time. (You Brits must have an opinion about him!) Yes, possible to lead having not been in the trenches but usually not likely. The doors of the leaders I have known were always open and those leaders – usually women – were extraordinarily empathetic.
I am deeply honored that you chose to include my words.
I think there are many examples of how to lead in a correct and positive way. There’s probably more than that one Mayan village we visited in Chiapas.
Unfortunately we seem to drift between extremes. Sometimes we hover in the middle. Sometimes we go way off the deep end. In high government we almost never have shining examples of great leadership. The people who would make the best leaders almost never volunteer. But every once in a while… Gandhi. Martin Luther King.
I have long held the opinion that most politicians are in the job purely for the money and power that it gives them… I believe they are paid way too much, likewise a lot of heads of industry who annually award themselves massive bonuses when their workers are are out times struggling to get by……i don’t have all the answers, but I agree with a lot of what has been said here…… it just makes me want to go and live in the woods away from it all…
Don’t! We need you! (but I can totally understand your desire to flee!)