Leading and following

We live in a society that really values leaders. Of course this isn’t shocking: leaders are the ones who are seen, so who else are we going to value? One of the humbling things that happens when you find yourself in a leadership role, if you are paying attention, is how incredibly valuable followers are.

Leaders are absolutely useless without followers. Yet because it’s hard to see followers, and easy to see leaders, we make the mistake of thinking that only leaders matter, or if not that, then at least that there is some virtue in being a leader, and that being a follower is second best.

Why am I talking about this in a dharma blog? Because this disparity between the reality of how things get done, and the unreality of what is seen of how they get done, is useful to see. I’ve been on a theme of how allowing ourselves to truly see is the greatest kindness, and of course this is one thing that is hard to see clearly.

As a person whose cognitive biases and tribal affiliations tend toward egalitarianism, leadership is something that I instinctively resist, because it feels disrespectful to followers. Why would I think that? Because of the cultural bias that followers aren’t as good as leaders. If I take it upon myself to lead, then naturally that means that I am labeling those who choose to follow me as less.

There’s an easy out to this if you’re on the path to awakening: as you get deeper into the practice, you start to notice that nobody is really in control. Leadership is something that happens to you, not something you do. Of course, when leadership tries to happen to you, one of the things you can do is to choose not to lead. Another thing you can do is to lead poorly, because you think poorly of the idea of leadership, because you think a leadership role is an ego trip.

When you see clearly that leadership is just an opportunity to let events flow through you because that is what seems to work right now, then you don’t need to lead—you just do it if you are needed. And you aren’t attached to leading, because you can’t be. And you really see the people for whom you are the leader, because you can see your relationship to them, and aren’t fooled by the labels.

What happens when a group of people all have this attitude about leadership is that leadership flows dynamically through the group as it needs to. There are people whose role is “leader” because that role is needed, but what’s really going on is that the group is acting organically, and leadership is arising as a result of the way that information and intention are flowing within the group, as if the group were a single organism thinking together.

What makes a person a good leader is their ability to recognize when they are wearing the leadership role, and then they are not, regardless of what it says on the door outside the office, or on the masthead of the ashram. When a person tries to hold on to the role, as if they were doing it rather than as if it were happening to them, then things stop flowing, and the result tends to be very jerky and inefficient. Things may still get done, but because someone who is at a crucial point in the flow is going against the flow, they aren’t done well.

So, part of the job of being kind enough to see things clearly is to see this clearly, and to dance the part that is there for me to dance, and not the part that I wish I were dancing.