Ask Americans who they most admire these days, and they generally say “no one.” Old-fashioned charismatic heroes have always been in short supply, but now they are almost completely gone as we search for someone—anyone—who will bring us out of the misery and uncertainty of economic collapse, natural disasters and tiny leaders such as the tea party's Michelle Bachmann.
Apple's Steve Jobs is being pressed to move on, former Vice President Al Gore is missing in action from the global climate debate, Nobel Prize winner and micro-finance innovator Muhammad Yunus is under fire for predatory lending, and even Greg Mortenson, the celebrated author of Three Cups of Tea, has been pulled from his perch as failed mountain climber turned force for good.
If the revolutions now roiling the Middle East are any indication, the exemplary leadership moments we do witness today are being driven more by crowds than the charismatic, great men celebrated in books and stories. So maybe it’s time we change those stories.
If only higher education would admit it. Leadership fellowships still mostly go to individuals, not teams; leadership programs are still siloed in separate schools; leadership is still mostly taught using the great-man theory; and university hierarchies are dominated by, well, individuals.
Our higher education system will only play its role in revitalizing a culture of leaders if it first cures its own addiction to Type-A leadership. ‘Leader’ is becoming a plural term, as the Type-A mythic figure is increasingly replaced Type-B collective leadership and Type-C crowded-sourced action. Colleges and universities need more of this collective and crowd-sourced leadership themselves. They need integrated programs that span hardened, even sclerotic, academic disciplines; new curricula that emphasizes the role of teams; flat hierarchies; and invitations to diverse engagement from those legions of actors that can do more together than they could ever do separately.
This would require a revised tenure system that rewards academic ‘team players’, not just the stars that do highly formalized research that ends up in little-read but prestigious journals. It would require an end charisma as its leadership destination, and a reengagement with the communities in which most colleges and universities reside. And it would require a good dose of the cooperation that is so often missing as higher education searches for its own magnetic great professors.
A new book by Cynthia Gibson and Nicholas Longo that I contributed to, From Command to Community: A New Approach to Leadership Education in Colleges and Universities, makes the case against teaching this charismatic, great-man model in favor of teaching collective leadership built on individual action by unknowns, in this case ordinary people who are better equipped to create leadership. By focusing on colleges and universities, we can start where the future leaders are—those young people who don't think they believe in heroes, yet who have already mastered the Type-B and Type-C models. Social media is everywhere and, sure, it has actually become a distraction in most classrooms (I ban it in my classes, but have caught students on occasion texting and tweeting in the back of the room). Yet if the academic community could embrace the underlying leadership paradigm shift it symbolizes and learn how to practice it, we’d quickly find stories to fill our ‘mythic hero’ vacuum.
Perhaps students should crowd-source the effort and help sound the alarm for their presidents, provosts and deans. Universities are still exemplars in the increasingly irrelevant Type-A model, as are Congress and the presidency. Long live the new kings and queens of leadership—look for them tweeting in the college square and the Rotunda.
More from Light on Leadership: