(Reading time: 10-15 minutes)
What makes leaders good or bad ones? How much power should a leader have? How should they conduct themselves? How do we know when they are no longer leading us well and what can we do about it? The following piece discusses these questions and seeks to answer them.
Most people think human beings need leaders and revolutionaries and insurgents in general are no exception. There are some political-social groups who state that they are autonomous and do not need leaders but it has been my experience even in some of those groups that they do indeed have leaders and that in general they act under that leadership. It seems to be a human trait for groups to accept leadership and to follow leaders and indeed all social animals we may observe have leaders. Nevertheless, the question of leadership historically has been fraught and that is as much the case for human society in its various stages as well as for revolutionary organisations.
RESPONSES TO LEADERS – HEALTHY & UNHEALTHY
If our leaders have proved their worth to our endeavours then of course we should respect them. We should not respect them because of their class or family background. It is what one does that makes one worthy of respect, not the social class in which one was raised. And if that class background gave certain advantages in education, in leisure time to study and learn, then those are advantages we value and seek for all, which is far from respecting someone merely because they were raised with those advantages.
As to family background, it seems to me that we are haunted with an old way of looking at human society. It might have seemed natural in ancient times to give the offspring of a valued leader special respect and even to choose the successor from among his/her offspring. It does seem to be the case that some talents and traits are inherited through genes and it is also true that such a family background can familiarise one with some principles of leadership. However, history has provided us with many examples of ineptitude, malice and even madness in leaders who have greatness in their family background. It has also provided us with examples of people who rose from obscurity and from a family background of no particular note to lead masses in historic deeds.
Since we speak of respect, we should talk now about what that means. Of course, when leaders seeks to lead us, to advocate some action or policy, we should listen for if we do not, how can we benefit from what they have to say to us? We listen with respect.
But respect is not the same as servility, nor blind acceptance. We should consider what we are being told and feel free to ask questions and to challenge what we may perceive as assumptions. Further, we should accept that others also have that right, even if we ourselves are convinced in the leaders’ words. Our leaders are not infallible and nor are we.
We said earlier that it is upon what we do that we earn respect and that is so for leaders too. Every judgement on what we do must inevitably be based to some extent on an action in the past, even if it as recent a past as earlier that week, the day before or an hour ago. But one’s past does not grant infallibility and one who took correct decisions in the past can all too easily take wrong ones today or tomorrow. History has also shown us many such examples. Therefore the expectation of any leaders or of their followers that we should accept what they say mainly on the basis of their having been correct in the past is completely unjustified — however emotionally satisfying it may be to some people — and we should resolutely reject the premise.
If we are entitled to question and even challenge leaders there also comes a time when that right should be put aside for awhile. At some point it is necessary to act and endless debate does not lead to action. Nor is the entitlement to question and challenge a justification for ceaseless exercise of that right and it is also the case that such practice will in time devalue future criticism and challenge, perhaps when they are valid and should be most needed. The point at which debate needs to come to an end and a decision made, by the accepted procedures of the group, is ruled by the necessities of the situation and not by simple declaration.
CONDUCT OF LEADERSHIP
Firstly, led us observe that while it is an impossibility for everyone to lead simultaneously, everybody is capable of leadership at some time in some circumstance. Every time one of us suggests a course of action or expresses a criticism in a group, we are in effect offering leadership to others. The one who says “I think we should …” or “Why don’t we …..?” or “Maybe we could ….” are all offering leadership at that moment. Whether it would have been effective leadership or in any case is accepted or not is beside this point.
We all of us should take responsibility for our actions and their effect. In practice that means weighing up positive and negative aspects before action (should we have time to do so) and afterwards evaluating once again its negative and positive aspects. Should we be constantly hesitant or paralysed by fear of failure we cannot be effective in anything worthwhile, therefore it is necessary that we are prepared to risk making mistakes. Then we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes which implies a responsibility to admit to them.
Leaders at any level must take responsibility not only for their own actions but for those of their followers also. The leader too must be prepared to make mistakes but should endeavour to ensure that they are not too serious, that the consequences are not too disastrous. This is a heavy responsibility which implies the need to think things through in advance and not to merely react or act mainly out of emotion. And yet, the leader must be prepared to be decisive when that is what the situation requires.
Too many individuals accept leaders as a means of abrogating their own responsibilities. All of us have responsibilities in any endeavour we join together: responsibility in sharing work, risk, and thought. If we leave consideration of the negative and positive aspects of a proposal to others, not only are we shirking our responsibilities but we are hardly justified in complaining later about the actions of our leaders.
Some leaders are seen to take on multiple responsibilities and many tasks. In capitalist endeavours this has been judged to be wasteful and ineffective in the long run, leading to inflexibility, slowness to react and “micro management”, among other faults. An insecure leader does not trust others and seeks to keep all tasks and initiatives under his/ her control. And yet, shit happens, as they say. Nothing can be completely controlled.
In revolutionary leadership this tendency to try to control everything by an individual or individuals has also been seen, with harmful consequences that include stifling initiative and learning among the group or organisation. Once this becomes established, the absence of the leader(s) mean the paralysis of the organisation and a similar effect occurs while waiting for them to make a decision. In addition, if they enemy subverts the leadership, the whole organisation and struggle becomes destroyed or at least greatly damaged.
Good leadership encourages the development of different areas by different individuals within the group and spreads participation in — and responsibility for — the decision-making. This model is often called collective leadership but within that itself there are different models too.
It would be very damaging if every individual were to act within an organisation according to how they might feel at different times and to represent the organisation externally without consulting the group. After matters are discussed and collective agreement has taken place, members of an organisation should not represent the organisation in a contrary way to what has been agreed. This is a difficult area with tensions between the right of expression of the individual and of responsibility to the organisation, one which I am unsure has ever been completely resolved.
Collective leadership is usually exercised through a committee or temporary working group and allows for different individuals taking a lead in different areas. One might note that person A regularly calls people to the overall task in hand and pushes for a monitoring of progress, while person B concentrates on developing a specific area, person C looks to the recording of decisions and person D to some external relations. There are of course formal positions in organisations and committees such as Chair, Secretary, Treasurer etc but even without formal elections one finds that successful groups develop areas of responsibility for separate individuals even without the existence of such elected offices. Furthermore, a particular responsibility may fluctuate between individuals at different times. A good argument exists for not entrenching anyone in specific roles over long periods of time. Rotation of roles and encouragement to take up new responsibilities can help broaden the experience and capabilities of members of the group or organisation and also prevent the growth of cliques and controlling leaderships.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
Their are certain traits which may be observed repeated in unhealthy leadership and it is well to be aware of them, both for those who follow them and for people put in positions of leadership themselves. The following list does not include timidity, hesitation and prevarication, which are also bad traits of leadership.
clearly enjoy issuing orders
- direct others to do tasks they would not undertake themselves
monopolise speaking time
push for an end to debate without demonstrable necessity for the organisation
dismiss out of hand opinions opposed to theirs
expect agreement with whatever they say and resent question or challenge
regard question and challenge as treasonous, mutinous
hold grudges against those who have disagreed with them and seek to have them ignored, ostracised or demoted
seek or accept control over multiple areas of work
lie outright to their following
or do not tell their following the whole truth
call upon their past record in order to justify their actions or direction in the present
call upon their family background to justify their actions or decisions
surround themselves with a group who support them without question
flatter particular people (as distinct from commending when appropriate)
never commend any of their followers when deserved or choose only some to commend
criticise others unfairly or out of proportion to what is deserved
consider themselves entitled to special consideration above others in physical and emotional comforts
believe that rules that apply to the majority do not apply to them by virtue of their position or imagined personal superiority
Also, among the group or organisation, those who:
Always agree with the leaders or
Constantly disagree to no apparent concrete purpose
Constantly praise the leaders in private or in public
Praise a leader or leaders while ignoring or downplaying the contribution of others
Deny leaders have committed errors or wrongdoing in the face of evidence to the contrary
Make excuses for wrongdoing or errors of the leaders
Use the past record or family background of the leaders to justify actions in the present
or to imply that the leaders should be followed without weighing up their actions or what they advocate
- criticise anyone who criticises the leadership rather than dealing with the point of that criticism
try to justify leaders having special consideration above others in terms of physical and emotional comfort
The exploitation of working masses and their resistance to that has been going on since ancient slave societies and has led to outbreaks of revolt down through the centuries. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first time that the working class succeeded in taking a city and holding it for a period, developing its own instruments of making decisions and carrying them out. At little over two months it was a short-lived experiment and fell to the bloody suppression of Prussian armed forces at the invitation of deposed royalty and dispossessed bourgeoisie.
It was not until 1917 that the working class was able once again to overthrow its oppressors and this time it did so not just in a city but in an entire state, also defeating invasions to overthrow its power. But where is that today? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but had been crumbling within from long before that and, some would say, the working class had lost control in the early years immediately following the Revolution.
The question of leadership and how to handle it by everyone is an important one in an organisation but, for revolutionaries, is essential. It is essential not only for the conduct of the struggle but perhaps even more so for managing society after a revolution. The seeds of that management in the future must be sown in the present.
I base the above on my personal experience of decades, my reflection upon them and on reading of history. My personal experience has been mostly in unpaid social-political struggles in trade unionism, housing, political groups on a number of fronts, solidarity committees, community and education groups but also employed in few NGOs for a shorter period. I have been either a follower or part of leaderships and have erred in both on occasions while on others acted correctly. I hope that I have learned from them all — and certainly from my mistakes.
In order to concentrate thinking on the general principles I have refrained from giving particular examples of recent leadership, which might have tended to give rise to discussion about individual cases rather than the principles as a whole.