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Too Many Perpetuate False Notions About Leadership

Column by Brett Altschul
associate news editor

Some people think that individual leadership is a concept that belongs to the past, that individual achievement is becoming less and less meaningful. High schools and colleges, including MIT, emphasize the importance of cooperative work. The theme also invades our fiction. The tremendously influential futuristic vision created by William Gibson is also centered on this idea. In his novel Count Zero, two characters discuss "the paradox of individual wealth in a corporate age."

Outstanding individual action is not a concept whose time has past. It's a concept that never had a time. Individual leadership and personal action have never dominated history, and they're no less pointless today.

Fundamentally, this idea has its foundation in elitism. The people who have decided that they will steer the world's destiny want to keep the ranks of the powerful filled with their own. Although the particular character of these self-anointed prophets has changed over time, their tactics haven't. By focusing on unmeasurable qualities, those in power may reject those they want to keep out of power with total impunity.

College admissions offer an excellent example. Before the turn of the century, admissions to most colleges, including Harvard, were based solely on academic performance. At the time, this was sufficient to keep the places almost exclusively WASP. However, as the number of Jews in top colleges swelled, the old guard saw a problem; their coveted country-club atmosphere was in danger. The solution they devised was simple and ingenious. They kept the Jews out by requiring that applicants prove their individuality and leadership. Problem solved.

My high school offered a class called Leadership. It required the permission of the instructor, the director of activities, to take the class. The scheme was incredibly well-designed. You could get into the class only if you were a "leader" already. In practice, this meant that people who were popular could get into the class, while leaders of controversial student groups were denied entrance. The final joke was that the class had no content whatsoever. But although the time just served as a study hall, the enrolled students could be sure they were among the chosen few who would steer the course of future society.

At MIT, most decisions, from admission to tenure, are based on merit. Students are supposed to be graded on an absolute scale that doesn't depend on the performance of anyone else. However, there are a few attempts to make MIT part of the culture of the individual. Those attempts are silly.

The Freshmen Leadership Program is an excellent and timely example of this silliness. This year's participants seem very attached to a gesture they learned at the program, a gesture that represents "Raise the roof." Apparently, the organizers of this program were ignorant of just what roof that expression means. "Raise the roof" is a reference to the traditional New England practice of barn-raising. At a barn-raising, the entire rural community assembles to assist one family, building them a barn in a single day. The Amish still do this.

Barn-raising is perhaps the most egalitarian activity that is a uniquely American tradition. Every community member assists as they can, and there is certainly no designated leadership structure. The whole region is drawn together as they raise the roof.

From what I saw at the "Killian" Kick-Off, the rest of the freshmen weren't particularly keen on the way the FLP people were gesturing. Those who weren't among the anointed didn't seem to want to have anything to do with those who were. It's not a good sign that two groups have already been forced apart in a freshman class less than a week old, and it's very ironic that a traditional symbol of unity and equality should prove so divisive.

If you doubt the danger of the emphasis on ephemeral pursuits, consider the final product of this system: President Bill Clinton. The most powerful man in the world is ingratiating and morally questionable. The first baby-boomer to ascend to the presidency got there by being sociable, by being a leader. The system created a man who had no core of beliefs, merely a facade of charisma. He is the perfect campaigner, but when it comes to actually governing, he lacks direction and focus. It's disturbing that this man has the power he does.

This whole culture of individual leadership hurts those of us who try to do real work as part of team. Real work is done in groups, and good decisions are made by technocrats, not "leaders."