Assigned Roles

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Cover of "The Road Not Taken: A Selection...
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Leaders lead. That doesn’t mean to say that they don’t follow, for often they are following an idea, a thought, a principle or just somebody else who inspires them. But its probably safe to say what they follow is different from what most people follow. They don’t conform for the sake of conforming. They don’t do what others do merely because others are doing it. They follow an inner voice, a call. They have a vision, not of what is, but of what might be. They think outside the box. They march to a different tune. In short they are not sheep, they lead.

Power allows us to rule over others without their consent. As the Greek historian Thucydides put it: “The strong do what they wish, and the weak suffer what they must.”

A key experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch. He assembled a group of people, asking them to perform a series of simple cognitive tasks. They were shown two cards, one with a line on it, the other with three lines of different lengths, and asked which was the same size as the line on the first. Unbeknown to one participant, all the others had been briefed by Asch to give the right answer for the first few cards, then the wrong one for most of the rest. On a significant number of occasions the experimental subject gave an answer he could see was wrong, because everyone else had done so. Such is the power of the pressure to conform that it can lead us to say what we know is untrue.

One extraordinary finding of Solomon Asch’s is worth noting however. If just one other person was willing to support the individual who could see that the others were giving the wrong answer, it gave him the strength to stand out against the consensus.

On a more frightening note was the Stanford experiment carried out in the early 1970s by Philip Zimbardo. The participants were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison. Within days the students cast as guards were behaving abusively, some of them subjecting the “prisoners” to psychological torture. The students cast as prisoners put up with this passively, even siding with the guards against those who resisted. The experiment was called off after six days, during which time even Zimbardo found himself drawn into the artificial reality he had created. The pressure to conform to assigned roles is strong enough to lead people into doing what they know is wrong.

Robert Frost wrote in his poem; The Road not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

To me leadership can take many forms, the charismatic, the reflective, the quiet type, the good and the bad. There are many forms indeed but all of them lead others in a direction they would not have necessarily chosen for themselves. The styles adopted will equally very according to the leader and their natural leaning to one or other style; engaging, autocratic, democratic, free-reign…

True leadership however is concerned with forging ahead on new paths, on paths less followed. The aim of the leader is not measured in financial gain but in how people follow and why they follow. Gain of any nature is as a consequence, a symptom of leadership. The real and true value of a leader is to make a difference to themselves and those who follow.

We see from the examples above that real, honest, natural leadership is in (very) short supply. Most people want to follow even in the face of obvious defect of judgment. People just don’t trust themselves and in that case will suffer what they must.

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