After Atheism

In Praise of Leaders
November 4, 2008, 9:09 pm
Filed under: Spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I had a great conversation yesterday about leaders. The argument was made that most communities in our society are patriarchal, where the leaders are trying to impose their will (or ideas or morals) upon the followers. The people I was having the conversation with thought of a leader as someone whose primary goal was to constrain their individual freedom. A bad thing.

To an extent, I could understand where they were coming from. We don’t always choose the communities we belong to. Some, we’re born into. Others, we somehow find ourselves in. You don’t generally get to select your family or the various governmental entities that expect you to obey their laws and pay their taxes. At school and at work, rules are enforced by threats of various flavors of punishment. To the extent that the values and actions of these groups conflict with your own, resistance makes sense.

But most communities don’t operate entirely out of force. Force wastes too much energy. Most families, jobs, schools and governments depend on some degree of cooperation. They have mechanisms for dissent, democratic ways of speaking up and influencing how the group works. And if that’s not enough, you usually have the option of walking out.

In these communities, leaders can’t be power crazed tyrants. Leadership, most of the time, is the opposite. A leader has to set his or her individual opinions and desires aside to be of service to the larger whole. Being a leader (for anyone out there who has tried it) is far more about giving than taking. A leader has to listen, to shape consensus, to attend to the basic needs of the community (cleaning up, paying bills, finding a home). The more democratic the group, the more leadership is an act of selfless service. Rather than resenting this kind of leadership, most group members appreciate it.

But I think many people still struggle with being a leader. There’s the quandary of “Who am I to tell people what they should do?” In the absence of an absolute moral code, there’s a temptation to see everything as relative, as each individual as having an inalienable right to “be yourself.”

Here’s where I disagreed. In my opinion, moral authority comes not from individuals, but from communities. Each community is its own ethical center of gravity. The leader has the right to enforce the communities values, to judge something “wrong”.

I don’t think this is a radical idea and I assume most people behave this way now. I just think it’s worth pointing out that stepping into the role of leader, like stepping into the role of citizen, is a choice for something that transcends our individual selves and immerses us in a world of meaning, value, and morality that is not of our own creation. It is not necessarily a way of oppressing people. It can also be a way of freeing them.