Not an easy time we’re in. It’s one of the most polarized and angry political climates I’ve seen. I must confess to being pretty disheartened by the violent tone of political discourse. David Brooks wrote about it last week, putting the problem in historical perspective. He calls the current polarization a war, a government war, Big Government vs. Small Government. On one side are those who offer government as a solution, on the other, the small government, or even anti-government activists. It is a war reaching back to the earliest days of the country.
I see it in psychological perspective, as the paradoxical problem of power. And it concerns not just government, but leadership and followership, whether we’re politicians, teachers, CEOs, parents, supervisors, or coaches. Whether we think the government IS the problem or SOLVES our problem, by looking outside ourselves for answers or to attribute blame, we empower the very thing we despise. We psychologically inflate the role by placing the locus of power outside ourselves.
In my new year’s post, Five Leadership Trends For The Next Decade, I wrote about this as Good Enough Leadership, a trend I’d like to see develop:
Our infatuation with leaders and celebrities smacks of feudalism, and might even be at the root of leadership failures. When we overly estimate high rank, we don’t see those above us as needing help, dependent, or fallible. So rather than feeling it’s our responsibility to help leaders, we hold them to an impossible standard of behavior, and when a lapse occurs, attribute the fault to an abuse of power, rather than to their human fallibility. This deification of leadership is bad for organizations and bad for democracy. It furthers the idea that change happens from above, and serves as a disincentive for others to step forward to lead and serve. And when leaders buy into their own deification they keep themselves isolated and out of touch with what’s happening. Good enough leadership recognizes leader’s limitations, fallibility, need for help and dependence on those below. Leaders can only be as good as the followers they develop.
Moving from a feudal to a democratic mindset takes time, and we’re still defining democracy as the freedom to be left alone. Political theorists call this negative freedom: freedom from government, from interference, from constraint. It’s the individual’s rights against tyranny. It is a first step in using power; the power to push back and say no. As a first step, it’s critical. But as the only step, it’s boring. And destructive. It’s all anti and no pro. It can detect tyranny and criticize those in power, but doesn’t contribute meaningfully to solutions.
Is there an alternative? If there is, it’s seldom seen. Political theorists call it positive freedom, freedom to. It is creative, generative and self-actualizing. It’s less looking up at what stops us, and more looking within at what we have to offer. But it’s not easy getting there. We have to give up the sense of power we gain by struggling against authority. It’s easier to know ourselves through opposition than through proactivity. Sartre might have been thinking about this when he wrote, man is condemned to be free. We are left alone with no excuse. I don’t think I know how to make it happen, but I’m yearning for a democracy that’s about more than just the freedom to be left alone. Freedom is, in a sense, nothing if not the freedom to unfold and develop ourselves to the highest potential. Andre Gide sums it up better than I can: To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.