Kenneth Mikkelsenʻs article, “Leaders in Search of Followership,” opens up some fascinating ideas that we need to consider in order to vote consciously, paying attention to our American need for heroes in hard times. This archetypal hunger, so deep we can hardly contain ourselves from hoping, can either serve us or defeat us. It depends how we acknowledge and address our need.
When Americans rallied to support Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, it reflected widespread wishful thinking − that here was a hero of our times, a great man who had overcome difficult odds to bring about change and to cure what is ailing the American society; a human incarnation of “the audacity of hope.” But according to Barbara Kellerman, reality has caught up with Obama and his followers.
“We looked at Obama as our first black president, a different kind of leader. He promised change and we believed in it. But within weeks, months, it was clear that this presidency would be quite similar to other presidencies. There are those who argue that we are hardwired to look for and long for hero-leaders. If you look throughout the entire course of human history, you will see that in the past, much more than the present, we have had individual leaders, whether queens and kings, whether presidents or prime ministers, who are much more powerful and authoritative than leaders seem to be now.
But leadership changes all the time. It is not now what it was, and even if we are still hardwired to look or long for hero-leaders, the evidence certainly is that there are so few and far between. Every time a person is asked who their favourite leader is, the person that comes to mind is invariable for a decade or two – Nelson Mandela. Now why does everybody name Nelson Mandela? It is because there are very few like him. Very few in the 21st century who feel they can be called hero-leaders. The consequences of our longing are that we are certain or doomed to be disappointed,” says Barbara Kellerman (James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government).
Hero-Hunger: A Dangerous Story in Times that Demand Courageous Followership
Mikkelson quotes Kellerman on reluctant followership in tough financial times: ““Bad followers come in all different varieties. Sometimes they are bad because they stand by and do absolutely nothing. Particularly when it comes to pocketbook issues and understanding that if they want to receive these benefits, these benefits actually need to be paid for. So how do you pay for them? Among other things, it can be solved by paying higher taxes and increasing the age at which you start receiving benefits. But these things are politically very difficult, and I am always reminded of the case of Sarkozy in 2010. He wanted to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and two million French people took to the streets to protest. Now is that good followership? Not particularly; at least not in my book.”
Our hero-hunger makes us imagine that our leaders will cure what ails us without making us compromise our comfort. We want them to fix the problems that are forcing us to make uncomfortable changes, like protective fathers who dominate the world to keep us safe in our private cocoons. We want instant rewards — the bad guys kept away, weʻre ready to keep house as long as keeping house doesnʻt require too much shifting of our priorities. Thatʻs fearful followership, looking for a hero instead of claiming our own ability to assess needs, collaborate with and support our leaders in a collegial, active way.
Passive followers are bad followers, and followers who merely take orders in exchange for comfort are just as bad. Look at the devastation of dictatorships, or polluting corporations without whistleblowers. However we vote in the elections upcoming, we need to vote as good followers — active, self-aware, well-informed about the issues and consequences of careless choices, and knowing that in our own private world we need to be our own heroes.
Resisting the Siren Call of the Hero Leader
The ancient sirens were parasitic beings whose irresistible call brought sailing ships to their doom on treacherous rocks. The classical hero Odysseus tied himself to a mast so he could hear their voices, ordering his crew to block their ears with wax and ignore any orders he might give in his madness. Odysseus was compulsively curious, and his curiosity got him in trouble as much as it liberated him from tight situations. He wanted to know everything, understand everyone, weaknesses and strengths.
Depth psychologists suggest we all take the heroʻs journey throughout our lives, both in theory and practice. We can learn to live these archetypes consciously, finding our way to the place where we can be effective leaders and effective followers. But if we give in to the fantasy of a hero leader who can fix our problems without our participation, we give up our responsibility. If we concede to policies which create systems that put a closed group of imagined heroes into power, we make it possible for the shadow of the hero to continue into the future, weʻre allowing our fears to shape a future of bad followership.
Step Back, Wake Up: Become the Hero of Your Own Life
So itʻs time to assess — not just the promises of candidates, but our own hopes and fears, as followers and as leaders in our communities and homes. The most important awakening right now must be from the trance of hero-hunger, so we can discover, in ourselves and our government, a collaborative strength we can use to solve the problems we face, and to survive (whether we are Republican or Democrat) the coming challenges of the next decade and beyond.