Having recently received a poignant lesson in what effective leadership isn’t, I decided to explore the question of what it is, by considering how individual efforts articulate with what I will call “the social field” (and have previously called “the social institutional and technological landscape”). I will discuss two kinds of leadership: Authoritative Leadership (broken down into Traditional, Rational, and Charismatic), and Surreptitious Leadership (a particular segment of the broader category of “surreptitious power”), as well as how leadership articulates with the innovation and diffusion of ideas. Then I will consider all of this in the context of my overarching social systemic paradigm (see Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix).
Social change occurs primarily through three types of interacting mechanisms: Innovation (see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology); social evolutionary drift (see e.g., the first six paragraphs of The Fractal Geometry of Social Change); and social organization in service to cooperative ends, frequently in conflict or competition with other organized efforts to accomplish what are presumed to be incompatible ends (this includes intentional social movements, such as, e.g., Transcendental Politics). Generally, these three mechanisms organically articulate to generate the ongoing dynamic of human history. While any enterprise is a portal through which our wills can, with varying degrees of consciousness, interface with this dynamic of change, there are certain institutional processes and roles through which human beings attempt to harness and channel the integrated processes of human history. These are found in the realms of politics, economics, culture, and religion.
Innovation and leadership are the two intentional mechanisms of social change. They can coexist -a leader can innovate, and an innovator can lead- or either can exist on its own -a leader can rely on established techniques, and an innovator can innovate without making any attempt to influence other human beings. Certainly, they are more robust together: Innovative leaders tend to capture our imaginations more, and thus be more charismatic and compelling, while entrepreneurial innovators, especially in the modern era of highly complex technologies, generally need to rally others to their enterprise in order to successfully innovate.
But, regardless of the degree to which they are braided currents in the stream of history, they can be considered separately in order to understand each and both better. I’ve given more attention to innovation than to leadership on this blog; hopefully, this essay will help establish a more optimal balance.
Leadership does not have to be dedicated to social change. A leader can try to preserve a desired status quo, or to resurrect an admired past condition. But, since the world never stands still, leadership affects the dynamic of change over time, even if it does so by seeking to regress or stagnant.
Leaders can occupy established positions as well as create new ones. But, intentionally or not, by becoming focal points around which others rally (or around which other’s actions swirl), they are conduits for the creation and spread of both their own preferred memes, and catalysts for the counterreactions of those who prefer other memes in their stead. As such, even the most conservative or reactionary of leaders, or the most humble and unassuming, are vehicles of social change: Change is the one constant, and leadership is one vehicle by which it occurs.
In most conceptualizations, effective leadership requires that the person in whom it is embodied is perceived by others to possess some kind of “authority.” The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber identified three kinds of authority: Rational, traditional, and charismatic. Charismatic authority is that aspect of authority that is vested in the personal qualities of the leader. Examples of leaders who have successfully relied primarily on charismatic authority are those renowned civil rights leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr.), rebel and revolutionary leaders (e.g. Gandhi), and, in some cases, tyrants who have wrested power from existing governments. But such leaders also exist in more humble movements, in classrooms and community organizations, in nonprofits and government agencies. Charismatic authority is generally a vital ingredient in any effective social movement, on any level.
Traditional authority is that authority that vests due to the ancient (often, though not always, archaic) traditions of a given society. The authority of parents, elders, tribal chieftains, and clergy are examples of traditional authority. This can be considered authority derived from cultural habit, from some deeply embedded and not generally re-examined informal hierarchical structure that simply endures across the ages.
Rational authority is that authority that vests by conscious design, a function of modernity rather than antiquity. Occupation of formal, modern governmental and bureaucratic offices are the quintessential examples of rational authority, from the President of the United States to the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
These three forms of authority can coexist and interact. Charismatic authority is often a vehicle to being assigned rational authority (e.g., a charismatic candidate is elected to office), and rational authority is often a codification of some pre-existing traditional authority (e.g., the organizational structure of a modern religious institution derived from the ancient traditional authority vested in religious leaders). Religious leaders exercising charismatic authority is a common occurrence (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ayatollah Khomeini).
What we conventionally think of as “leadership” is well mapped-out by these three variants of authority. But that conventional conceptualization only identifies one general form of leadership, what I am calling “Authoritative Leadership.” I believe that there is another kind of leadership as well, one which, again, can coexist and interact with Authoritative Leadership in various ways. I call this other form of leadership ”Surreptitious Leadership.”
Surreptitious leadership can take the form of being “a king maker,” making behind-the-scenes arrangements which help imbue others with authoritative leadership. Sometimes, this involves some elements of localized authoritative leadership mobilized in service to cultivating broader authoritative leadership in others (i.e., those close to the surreptitious leader perceive in him or her local authoritative leadership, which is then exercised in service to broader surreptitious leadership). Often, these people are not really “surreptitious,” but rather are perceived as the real power behind the person nominally given the position of authoritative leadership through which the surreptitious leader is operating. For example, Karl Rove, the conservative political strategist who orchestrated the election victory of George W. Bush, was a not-so-surreptitious surreptitious leader (and perhaps Dick Cheney, thought by many to be the real power in the Bush administration, as well).
But there are other forms of surreptitious leadership as well. Perhaps the quintessential example of surreptitious leadership is the “Chinese Servant” archetype employed by John Steinbeck in East of Eden. Lee, the Chinese servant in the household, who pretended to speak only broken English, was really a highly educated and extremely wise individual, who confided in another character that he liked being a servant because it enabled him to control his master. In other words, he played on stereotypes to make himself invisible and non-threatening, but to position himself to whisper in his master’s ear in ways which guided his master’s decisions, who in turn affected others.
This pure form of surreptitious leadership is quiet, humble, and unassuming. It seeks neither credit nor glory, but rather allows others to receive them in order to remain most effective.
There is a subtle distinction between surreptitious leadership and surreptitious power. Though the former generally requires he exercise of some form of the latter, the latter can exist independently of the former. So, for instance, J. Edgar Hoover was famous for his surreptitious power, his ability to blackmail prominent office-holders (including the President of the United States) with information that he had illicitly procured through misuse of his Federal Bureau of Investigation.
This is a case of information being used to control those ostensibly with more institutional power, but not necessarily an exercise of surreptitious leadership. If, for instance, it were utilized only to procure wealth and luxury for the person employing it, it would be surreptitious power but not surreptitious leadership. The more it is used to affect public policy formation, and to channel the actions of multitudes of others down desired paths, the more it becomes an example of surreptitious leadership.
As in the earlier examples of surreptitious leadership, it often involves localized authoritative leadership exercised in service to broader-based surreptitious leadership. So, just as Karl Rove authoritatively led his staff and followers in order to surreptitiously lead the nation, so too did J. Edgar Hoover authoritatively lead the FBI in order to exercise surreptitious power over individuals holding the highest offices of the land.
A broader hybrid of authoritative and surreptitious leadership involves authoritative sources or counselors that surreptitiously lead. The archetypes for this are: 1) the viziers or ministers who counsel, and are the real power behind, sultans and kings; and 2) the philosophers whose ideas are employed by authoritative leaders. Examples of the latter (sometimes called “opinion leaders”) are the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment philosophes whose ideas informed both the “Enlightened Monarchs” and the revolutionary leaders of the late 18th century, and the 19th century American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose ideas informed both Gandhi and King.
The best leaders combine elements of all forms of leadership -mobilized in service to the innovation, selection, diffusion, and implementation of ideas- not necessarily by occupying every role, but by recognizing and mobilizing every role, channeling their forces and orchestrating rippling transformations which serve the purpose to which their leadership is dedicated.
And so leaders of all kinds -the three varieties of authoritative leaders, and the various forms of surreptitious leaders- are nodes in our dynamical social networks through which memes are collected, synthesized, refined, disseminated, and employed. In The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, they are intensifiers, nodes at which the described dynamic is invogorated according to the wills of those occupying those nodes. Their leadership can be more local or more global, broader or narrower (i.e., affecting broader or narrower ranges of “colors” in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change), more or less salient (i.e., establishing lasting and significant change, or created mere momentary ripples).
Whether authoritative or surreptitious, or some hybrid of the two; whether innovative or derivative; whether more global or more local; whether broader or narrower; leadership is about facilitating change. It is less about the person who occupies the role than how they affect the patterns into which they have effectively tapped (though, of course, the person who effectively taps into those patterns is honored and admired, or reviled, depending on for what purpose and to what effect). The best leaders are focused not on themselves, on their own desires or beliefs or self-glorification, but rather on the world around them, the people they are tryng to influence, the ideas with which they are working, the currents of history they are attempting to navigate. Leadership is more about conducting than commanding, inspiring than imposing. It is not, as we often think, the placing of oneself above others, but rather the immersion of oneself into the system composed of others, in order to affect that system most profoundly.