A Short Piece

Leadership Occurs Where Knowledge Is Incomplete

A leader takes responsibility for what they can’t logically be held fully responsible, suggesting “nonrationality”

If we have complete knowledge, we just need to follow the directions. A person who follows the directions first “looks like” a leader, but really they’re a follower, just like us. After all, they’re also “following directions,” just sequentially before we do.

Real leaders though make decisions when it’s not clear what needs to be done, where knowledge is lacking and a risk necessary (especially where the stakes are high). But paradoxically, where knowledge is incomplete, there’s a real sense in which a leader cannot be held fully responsible for what happens. After all, the leader, just like us, didn’t know what would occur, but unlike us, they were still willing to act. Perhaps foolishly. Perhaps bravely.

Lots of people seem to want to be a leader when it’s clear what needs to be done, because then people can receive praise and status without taking any risk. Also, who wants to take responsibility for something they cannot be fully responsible for? It’s working with a kind of disadvantage, and yet a leader won’t avoid the responsibility or make excuses, even though the leader has every logical right to do so. There’s something about being a leader that’s unfair, so if we can get away with being called “a leader” without actually being one, why not just do that? It’s only rational…

A boss, President, CEO — you name it — is not necessarily a leader (all the time). If complete knowledge is available on Monday, even if the boss “makes a decision to act,” it’s not really leadership even though it looks that way: the boss is just following (and ordering others to follow) directions. But if knowledge is incomplete on Tuesday, the boss, President, CEO, etc. could “meaningfully” be a leader in that context. Yes, the head of the organization has authority all the while, but “authority” and “leadership” are not similes, even if they can often intersect. (But if someone has authority, they can force others to think of them as a leader or risk consequences…Also, for a technical note, if knowledge is 60% available, the boss is “60% a leader,” per se, and since absolute certainly is mostly impossible, technically we are all always “leaders” to some degree with every decision. But there’s a big difference between being “10% a leader and 90% a follower versus 90% a leader and 10% a follow, as clear by the radically different levels of existential anxiety.)

Just because we are “first” doesn’t mean we lead (it can hardly be said people in a race are being “lead” by the people in front of them, even though it looks that way), but this mistake is common, confusing us on the role of and duties of a leader.

This isn’t to say leaders have nothing to do with authority, making decisions, brokering deals, managing personal conflicts — there’s likely nothing a leader can’t be involved in — but it is to say that the defining characteristic of a leader is the act of making a decision on incomplete information. To put it another way: if we’re not suffering existential anxiety, we’re probably not being a leader. That’s not necessarily bad, and sometimes it’s best not to act and race into a situation we don’t fully understand, so note here that it can sometimes be bad to lead. Being a leader is not necessarily good, seeing as it is not always good to act on incomplete data.

Here, my point is mostly to meaningfully define “leadership” as distinct from “boss,” “authoritarian,” “manager,” “winner,” “first place,” etc., and to point out that today we are deeming people “leaders” who only carry out “the motions of leadership,” contributing to our confusion. But hey, if certain actions look like leadership and the public calls it “leadership,” and we can get all the honor and status of “being a leader” without any of the risk or existential anxiety, why in the world would we actually be a leader? The incentives are all there for “the motions of leadership” — all being a real leader could do is mess up a good thing — so why not just keep following directions? Surely those won’t lead us astray.




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O.G. Rose

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