Saturday, October 14, 2017

Against Prestige

This essay addresses one of the dimensions of the landscape of inequality: the structures of prestige, reputation and empowerment through which a society grants positions of singular influence to individual leaders.
What is needed are conscious actions to counteract the reinforcing hierarchical effects of these habits of prestige-building. An individual may be worthy or deserving of a position of responsibility in an organization; our objective here is to identify a tipping point at which meritocratic promotion becomes kingmaking, leading to the loss of opportunity for others: for individuals and organizations, but more significantly in the broader societal paradigm that an excess of kingmaking reinforces.
Consider the myriad phrases that common parlance makes available for us to laud and promote a leader, and the relative dearth of available phrases for constructive criticism. We have the language, and with it permission, to build up the prestige and influence of a leader, plenty of ways to destroy him or her, but few ways to reinforce a spirit of modesty and power sharing.
Alice, through the looking glass, had available two potions -- one for getting bigger and one for getting smaller. It is patently obvious that these could be of no uses to her without the both. But contemporary American culture seems to have lost one of the bottles.
We make our organizations and their leaders as big as possible, as soon as possible. It is presumed that the space they operate in is one of limit and scarcity, whether it is a cultural, political, or economic space. Leaders are chosen, shaped and pressured to maximise productivity against a background of scarcity and competition.
Several consequences flow from this unconscious bias and its concomitant habits of mind.
Internally, those organizations operate on a hierarchical model with diminished opportunity for leadership growth within their membership;
Externally, those organizations take up space, attention, resources, and reputation, diminishing the opportunity for new organizations to join them in the field;
In the public imagination, the opportunity to form new types of organizations and associations is diminished by the pervasive paradigm of a “successful” or “competitive” organization.
Skills, talents, personality types of participants are channelled toward certain roles in organizations by these singular, hierarchical, and prestige-based organizational models.
In response, and in support of reducing inequality, we must find ways to disestablish our leaders. Not in the spirit of reducing their merits, but in the spirit of building a more humble culture around them, a culture that leaves more room for new leaders, new models of leadership, new organizations, and new types of organizations.
What does it mean to be considered good or excellent in one's work? This is the essential question. Today all answers lead toward reinforcing the confidence and certainty of our leaders, and this carries us far beyond the point where such reinforcement is beneficial to society. The unmoderated reinforcement of leaders and models of leadership ends by reinforcing a politics of control.

It were better, I believe, to develop or rediscover more modest, moderating, and inclusive ways of thinking, imagining and speaking of leadership. Let us ground our leaders and the structure of our organizations in the thoughtful and strategic promotion of emerging leaders and in new and inclusive models of leadership. When we neglect this work we allow inequality to increase and to reify its worst characteristics throughout the structure of public life, that is, throughout the political dimension of all of our activities, whether cultural, economic, academic, philanthropic, or civic.