We face today diminishing confidence in most every kind of leadership—that provided by political and religious leaders, by teachers, by doctors, by leaders in business. We simply don’t respect—either honor or fear—leaders in the same way as in times past.
Is something terribly wrong? Many would argue profoundly so. But I suspect that the larger part of our growing unwillingness to put leaders on pedestals is less a failing of social structure than part of that same cultural growing up —this time in our relationship to leadership.
Authority in times past has always been at least to some degree mythologized, parental. The Pharaoh was seen as in incarnation of the sun god rah. And while in modern times we know that doctors, religious leaders, and presidents are not deities, at once they have not been wholly mortal.
Part because of the nature of the challenges ahead, but more because of where we have come to in the human story, such parental mythologizing today serves us less and less well. In the future it should benefit us even less, indeed often result in great harm. Good leadership is a heroic enterprise — it always has been and always will be. And the future will no less need powerful leadership, quite the opposite. But if what we see today tells us anything about the future, the kind of heroism required for times ahead will need to be of a more expressly human sort.
Leadership, today, along with every other kind of human relationship, confronts us with limits to what ultimately we can be for one another. With love, we’ve seen how it increasingly gets in the way to make the other person half of ourselves. And we’ve seen how with relations between countries regarding one’s own people as chosen creates the necessity for demonization. In the case of leadership, the limitation has to do with what a leader can be for his or her followers. Whether our concern is intimacy, war and peace—or, here, authority—in times ahead, it will serve us less and less well to make another our answer.
What will define good leadership in the future? We only begin to understand. But without question, again, it will stretch us mightily. Surrendering old heroic imagery demands that we bring to bear capacities that in their own ways are even more heroic.
Leadership in the future will be a more humble enterprise. At once it will be more demanding. It will require deeper maturity of being. And it will require a new appreciation for the easily overwhelming complexity of one’s task.
At this point, we tend to be better at demanding the gift of mature leadership than knowing what to do with it. We want leaders to get off their pedestals. But when they attempt to do so, we often respect then less not more. We want leaders to more transparent, to reveal more of themselves and to make fewer decisions behind closed doors. But when they do, our first response is often to attack them for their human frailties.
Changes in what it means to lead will reshape every kind of institution and every domain of culture in the decades ahead. And essential changes in how we understand leadership are not limited to formal authority. They are just as pivotal for how we think about authority in interpersonal relationships—between friends, between parents and children. And they are just as dramatically relevant to how we relate to ourselves, to what will be required in the future for us to effectively direct our daily lives.