Why Two Young Women Have More to Teach Us About Leadership Today Than All the Angry Old White Dudes in the World
Quick: if I say “leader”, do you a) roll your eyes b) want to punch me c) smash your fist against your head or d) all of the above? So: are there “leaders” anymore? Is there even such a thing as “leadership”? Or is it just a foolish, obsolete word, an idea, that, the moment it’s uttered, makes everyone under the age of 35, 45, 55, taking a grim look at the state of the world, and their own lives, angry, disgusted, cynical, and embittered?
And yet leadership has no one to blame but itself for its own downfall. Leadership makes us hate it because it’s basically devolved to Learning to Act Like an Angry Old White Dude…in order to amass more power, money, and sex, by making people miserable, frightened, and powerless, if we’re honest.
The leadership-industrial complex is an American thing, “leadership” being an American creation. And for as long as it’s existed — professors teaching “leadership” in schools, coaches teaching execs and honchos to be “leaders”, the complex has basically been in the business of teaching people how to be…American white dudes. Let me put that more elegantly.
Leadership is an exercise — or has been — in inculcating people into enacting the values, attitudes, and poses of macho American patriarchal capitalism, with more than little bit of good old American supremacy in the mix, too.
You don’t have to look too hard to see it. There’s that weird macho fingerless fist bump. There’s the “power pose”, legs spread, chest puffed out. There’s the bullet points that are endlessly regurgitated — don’t ever veer from the script! Here’s the way you must stand, move, act, think, and speak. Never admit weakness — always double down on the offensive. Are we just making attack robots, my friends?
Leadership, in other words, is about teaching people how to establish dominance, how to rise to the top of status hierarchies, how to punish and threaten and wheedle and intimidate. It’s the art of how to do emotional violence, how to be a “winner” not a “loser”, how to control, manipulate, and twist things — the most valuable things of all, people and institutions — for…what? For one’s own ends. It’s about using a not so subtle set of practices to effectively brainwash people, by intimidating them where they can be frightened, and cajoling them where they can’t be intimidated….so that you can rise to the top of capitalism’s tired, creaking, failing institutions. Leadership makes us all so irritated, if not enraged, because it’s the living exercise of patriarchy and capitalism, usually with a healthy does of supremacy, too.
If you think I overstate things, you can see the results of modern leadership at work in the heads of the two nations that have bought into it most. There’s Trump, and there’s Boris — both global laughingstocks. Nobody takes them seriously, because they’ve become caricatures of leadership — one the Mafioso, the other, the clown. Trump’s endless self-aggrandization. Boris’s loony proclamations. They’ve become synonymous with social collapse, with self-inflicted ruin, with sheer idiocy. But so, in their example, has leadership itself.
And yet I don’t think leadership is dead. I just think it’s on the cusp of radical change. Change so transformative, it’s hidden in plain sight. The era of leadership as the expression of patriarchy, capitalism, and supremacy is coming to an end, my friends.
If Trump and Boris are the caricatures of leadership — then who are it’s truest practitioners today? Go ahead and think about it. Who do you come up with? Who are the opposites, if you like, of a Boris and a Trump? Are there any? Interestingly, when I think about that question, I come up with two people. Both of whom, even more interestingly, are…young women. Greta and Malala.
Don’t you think that’s funny? Maybe a little poignant? Strange? That two of the most radical, successful leaders in the world today aren’t old, enraged white men bellowing angrily for dominance and power…but young women trying to teach us all that we must take care of it? Greta and Malala are, after all, the ones who’ve sparked global movements, who’ve turned the status quo upside down…where Boris and Trump, by comparison, are impotent old has-beens. I think there’s a deep lesson in that.
They are teaching us what leadership means in this century. And in their hands, we are beginning to see that leadership is being radically transformed, from the exercise of dumb, macho, patriarchal values of dominance, control, and tribalism — to more sophisticated, humane, wise, courageous, and beautiful values. But what are they?
The first value that I think Greta and Malala are teaching is universalism. Each of them stands for a different aspiration: Greta wants us to take care of the planet, and Malala wants us to educate every child on earth. But both those aspirations are global. They aren’t small, tiny, local, in that sense. Now compare them with Trump and Boris. They only care about their own tribes, not even their own countries. See how small that is in comparison?
And yet that’s true of the erstwhile left in America and Britain, too. Nancy Pelosi and Jeremy Corbyn don’t have a vision to change the world. They barely have a vision to change their own societies. But why would a world be inspired by that? If you don’t have a vision to radically transform the world — and that means all of it — what kind of movement can you really build in this day and age?
That matters more than we often think. Because the world isn’t doing well. Fascism, extremism, authoritarianism, is surging like a fatal riptide, as the global economy sputters out. China, India, America, Britain…no corner of the globe has been left untouched. We have global problems now, my friends. Global climate change, global fascism, global inequality.
So the first value that tomorrow’s leaders must express, enact, live, is universalism: to really care about the planet. All of it. In some enduring, inclusive, meaningful sense. If you don’t do that, my guess is that you’re going to end up closer to the Trump end of the spectrum than the Malala end. The world will laugh at you.
And yet there are those who want to “change the world” — or at least say they do. But nobody much would recognize them as leaders. Take Zuck at Facebook, or Travis at Uber. Leaders?
Don’t make everyone laugh. That’s a joke, right? But didn’t they change the world? The truth is that they didn’t change it so much as they caused it to regress. Facebook takes us back to a tribal time, where we’re at each others’ throats. It fills us with envy, rage, disappointment, isolation. It fuels extremism, fascism, and authoritarianism, No, that’s not my opinion, that’s what the data says. Uber makes the idea of a middle class job a joke — it regresses societies back into a high-industrial age of piecework, with all the instability and despair that follows.
“Changing the world” doesn’t mean taking it backwards to a prior age. Nobody’s changing much if all we’re doing is becoming neo-serfs and peasants and raging extremists. History’s had millennia of that…versus just a few hundred years of anything vaguely resembling freedom. So “changing the world”, though it’s another phrase that makes us roll our eyes, especially bitter leftists, is genuinely understood, as something we should eminently want more of.
Greta and Malala want to change the world in just that genuine way — to spark revolutions in progress. Greta wants us to stop climate change.
Malala wants us to educate every child on earth. If we did all that, we really would change the world, versus take it backwards. We shouldn’t give up on the idea that we can change our worlds just because Silicon Valley tech-bros and dopey cable news pundits adopted the phrase and turned it into a kind of awful trite self-parody. We only really take away our own power to lead anyone or anything anywhere that way.
Do you see the value there? It’s a kind of fearless honesty. A certain rebellious innocence. A kind of radical authenticity. While we’re here being cynics, trying to prove how sophisticated and intelligent we are, by cracking jokes about what a cliche “changing the world is”…to impress each other…Malala and Greta are out there actually doing it. It’d be wrong of me to say something like: maybe it takes a schoolgirl to have that kind of beautiful naivete. We’re the fools here, my friends. We don’t understand our cynicism is just a defense against our the despair of our own impotence. Confront that impotence with honesty, with authenticity — and then maybe you can be a leader too. But the longer you spend, like so many Twitter leftists I see, making cynical wisecracks about how pointless it is to try to change the world…the less you’re ever really going to be able to do it.
That brings me the question of how. What makes Greta and Malala special isn’t just that they talk politely and sweetly about changing the world. They are out there doing it. In other words, they’re leading by example — in a very specific and special way. Greta just stopped…going to school. She decided that the planet was more important. That decision struck us all as so sensible she became a global sensation.
Malala did just the opposite — but also precisely the same: she decided going to school was so important, even being shot in the head…literally…wouldn’t stop her. She became a global sensation, too.
What’s the common thread here? Both of these young women are disrupting institutions and norms that have failed them. In Greta’s case, it was the idea that kids should just obediently go to school while the planet’s collapsing; in Malala’s case, it was the idea that girls shouldn’t go to school at all. Both, for different reasons, equally toxic norms. And both put their money directly where their mouths were. Malala literally risked her life to go to school, and Greta risked her future by not going. They acted, in other words, to shatter failed norms and institutions — to build microcosms of the world they wanted in their own lives.
You might think that’s no big deal. But think about how many of our leaders really do it. How many of them really lead by example in this special way — being unafraid to shatter norms and institutions that are failing? Sure, Trump does — in a negative, destructive way. But almost no one does in a positive way. There are many Congresspeople who’ll speak out against massacres at schools happening weekly. But how many of them will get kids together and say: let’s all go on school strike until there’s gun control here?
Do you see my point a little? Leading by the example of turning things upside down is in short supply. Our leaders aren’t leaders because they’re too timid and meek and obedient to challenge our failing systems — and the only ones who do challenge those systems are the authoritarians and fascists who want to make the world even more violent, unstable, and dangerous. In the void, democracies are losing their spirit, their optimism, their dynamism.
Do you see the value here? It’s defiance. Rebellion. Not-giving-a-damn. Our erstwhile leaders don’t have nearly enough of that in a positive direction, only a negative one. The result is that they’re trapped by broken systems — so how can they change them? You can’t change a thing you’re not willing to challenge, reject, break. And what made Greta and Malala different was that willingness to break a thing so it could be remade better.
But of course, as I’ve pointed out, the demagogues want to break things, too. And replace them with even more violent and failed societies, institutions, norms, values. So what makes Greta and Malala different in that regard? Am I just saying: go out and break things, like Trump shatters norms of decency and humanity ever single day? Of course not.
Malala and Greta’s final value is nourishment. They want us to be caring and thoughtful human beings again, who tend the worlds around us. When Greta says we must stop climate change, when Malala says educate every kid on earth — they’re both calling for nourishment, just of different kinds. When they break things, it is because those things are destructive, because they don’t nourish enough — whether it’s caring for the planet, or educating little kids.
And that squares my circle. Remember how I said leadership is evolving beyond being just the tired enactment of patriarchy’s value of dominance, control, acquisition, and possession? Which find their ultimate culmination in predatory capitalism? Malala and Greta are calling for just the opposite values. Planting the seeds of life — not extracting more profit from a failing harvest. Where patriarchy wants dominance, they want liberation, where it wants control, they want defiance, where it wants acquisition, they want nourishment, where it wants possession, they want caring.
Greta and Malala aren’t trying to establish dominance hierarchies. They’re not busy learning stupid “power poses” and getting coaching from “charisma experts.” They’re not watching videotapes of old white dudes and learning how to regurgitate bullet points so that they can evade tough questions. They’re…just being their better selves. Defiantly, gracefully, simply, authentically. Fully and wholly. And they are asking us to be, too. Do you see how opposed these sets of values are? They are replacing leadership as the exercise of patriarchy with leadership as the exercise of humanity.
Perhaps it took two little girls to wrest leadership away from the patriarchs. To make it a thing that nourishes the world, the planet, the earth again. Or at least to try to. Maybe nobody else could have challenged those age old values of male violence, dominance, and ownership — except two little schoolgirls, who haven’t yet been controlled tightly enough by them. Boris and Trump. Malala and Greta. The future lies with one of these sets of people, my friends — and it isn’t the old, angry men. Beautifully, strangely, rightly — it lies with the young women.
We should all thank our lucky stars for the Gretas and Malalas of the world. They are guiding us through the rocky shoals and turbulent waters of the 21st century. The question, I think, is whether enough of us learn from them to become the kinds of leaders they are, too.