Faflak: Leadership provides more than simple fascination

Leadership is everywhere these days. Why now, and why with such urgency?

Leadership got us from Lascaux to the Internet, from the slave rebellions against Rome to Omaha Beach and the Arab Spring. It also got us from the Seven Years’ War to the second Iraq War. It propelled us into the cosmos and the dark heart of matter; it also brutally colonized indigenous peoples and cultures in the name of a ‘New World.’

It’s no secret we often understand the march of history through the ones who led it, or fictions about them. Leaders fascinate because they reflect who we are or want to be. As such, they come in myriad forms: hero, visionary, champion, bureaucrat, mentor, teacher, caregiver, friend, parent, president, prime minister.

Max Weber’s concept of leadership as charisma thus seems to hold sway: an aura of divinely conferred power or talent that inspires devotion in others. In place of the Sovereign who subdues the Leviathan we now have the cult of the individual. Such exemplarity, turning citizens into disciples by galvanizing their hopes and dreams, can produce a Ghandi or a Hitler. It makes devotion to one’s ideal inspirational, but also fickle, explosive, easily exploitable. 

Cut to our media-saturated, socially networked present, which further blurs the relation between a leader and a celebrity: everyone can be leader because she’s a star. Film stars, princesses and sports champions now join company with Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama; the cast of Jersey Shore gets better ratings than the prime minister’s cabinet.

In a world governed by markets as much as senates, some look to entrepreneurs as our new leaders: Disney, Jobs, Stewart, Gates, Winfrey are also synergizers, visionaries, imagineers for a more socially robust world. Business has been looking beyond spreadsheets to the liberal arts to tell a richer story about creativity, innovation, sustainability – about making ethical choices, not just money.

Many of us who make and study culture are heartened.

I left an English MA fed up with education to start a business, only to get fed up with business and return to English. I was wrong on both counts. ‘Entrepreneurship’ needn’t be a bad word, and ‘cultural entrepreneurship,’ as Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson says, can be a source of great promise.

In the current job market, we need to show our students how to forge their own paths.

But in this respect, all of Western’s faculties, schools and programs have been in the business of leadership for some time. We wish for our students jobs, success, material rewards. We want them to capitalize upon new ideas.

But we also want them to reflect upon and re-imagine what we think we already know.

This requires sensitivity to the past as well as present; we have to know where we came from, for better or worse, to know where we’re going. But, emergent leadership comes in many forms. I wish my students success, but I also encourage them not to fear or avoid failure. How else will they learn to improve the plight of others, or to realize what appears as the failure of others is success by another name?

One dark side of charisma is our schadenfreude in watching leaders falter. But failure also tempers our innate drive to innovate with resilience and compassion, to cultivate and tolerate others’ idiosyncrasies as our own. We need to encourage in our students this sort of thoughtful reflection if we expect them to be imaginative, empathic citizens of the world, whether that world is London, Ont., or Mumbai. This is not a bad goal for a globe whose population will be 9 billion by 2046, by which time Miami might be underwater.

I wonder, then, if a leader is anyone who risks the certitude of his knowledge in the name of being taught by others? This would make the combined ignorance of more than 7 billion people, paradoxically, our most priceless resource. Adorno and Horkheimer said that Enlightenment now “radiates disaster triumphant,” which any number of recent political, economic, or ecological crises only affirms.

But they were also invoking Kant’s own challenge to the Enlightenment: sapere aude, or ‘dare to know.’ Perhaps leadership is the university asking its students and faculty to take on this challenge. With due respect to Benjamin Tal, Chief Economist, CIBC World Markets,  how could university be a ‘bad’ investment compared with the economic fantasies that have irrevocably altered the social reality of millions of ordinary citizens?

In the face of monumental change we’re being asked to revise our responsibility toward our students, to re-think the balance between the speculative, the intellectual and the vocational. This doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the duty they expect us to fulfill to help them exercise their hearts and souls as well as their minds and bodies.

Can they get this training elsewhere? Of course. Is the university still one of the best training grounds for informed, creative and innovative citizens to make sense of the often senseless? Absolutely.

If the events of the past 13 years, let alone the previous century, are any indication, our increasing fascination with leadership indicates an urgency we ignore at our peril.

Joel Faflak is professor of English and Theory at Western, where he teaches, among other things, courses on literature, culture, and leadership.

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Cultures of Leadership: Multi-Faculty Panel Discussion
9-11:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 29
Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College
Panel speakers include Joel Faflak, director, School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities; Betty Anne Younker, dean, Don Wright Faculty of Music; Pam Bishop, associate dean, Graduate Studies; Michael Bartlett, associate dean (academic); Sandra Smeltzer, professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies; and Mitch Rothstein, chair, DAN Management and Organizational Studies.
RSVP online at alumni.uwo.ca/connect/homecoming/.