Leadership: Selfless or Self-serving blog

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Leadership: Selfless or Self-serving

“Each of us is a unique thread, woven into the beautiful fabric, of our collective consciousness.” Jaeda DeWalt.

It has been long maintained that the wisdom of the collective unconscious speaks to us by way of stories. In channelling what needs to be heard, artists act as modern day shamans who are best able to express the zeitgeist of an era.

In his book, Vital Signs, Gregg Levoy explains our culture’s fixation with vampires & zombies, “Part of the reason so many people are fascinated nowadays with vampires and zombies is our collective fear of being sucked of our life force, drained of our vitalities, and left in a bloodless and catatonic state...Most of us know, or have known, the experience of feeling like the living dead. Being at a job that, like a vampire, sucks the life out of you. School years spent staring zombielike into space and dreaming about the pleasures of the flesh or perhaps about freedom. Evenings spent clocking your statutory 4.8 hours of daily television. Being in a relationship in which you feel like a mere ghost of your full vital self."

While zombies might have top billing in escapist-oriented culture, it is sociopaths that are featuring most in more realism-based ones. Think Don Draper in the corporate world, Frank Underwood in the political realm or everyman Walter White in small town nowheresville.

Rise of the Sociopath

One of the most acknowledged cultural offerings of late took a break from singular character studies to focus more on a societal one. Elliot Alderson, the protagonist in the TV series, Mr Robot, is neither a hero nor anti-hero. His social criticisms and distancing techniques masquerade as a defense to compensate for his inability to connect with people. Guided by conscience, he relies on his dissociative disorder to survive in contemporary society.

The series is an attempt to show the strain placed on younger generations who have grown up in a society characterised by rampant individualism, hyper-consumerism, excessive social media intake and a burgeoning crisis of meaning. What Elliot finds dispiriting is the dearth of role models. Consider how icons of family values, Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris, Martha Stewart, Lance Armstrong and others continue to fall by the wayside. Being in the IT industry, Elliot’s disillusion is expressed toward one of his own:

“Is it that, we collectively thought that, Steve Jobs was a great man? Even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children. Or maybe it's that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit.”

 Perhaps for the first time in history, we are living in a time where the children are responsible for raising the adults. An ancient proverb maintains that it takes a village to raise a child. But what kind of child is raised when that village is more akin to inhabitants of a mental asylum? A couple of years ago a book was released called, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. It suggested that psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused - qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century. In Mr Robot, Elliot’s elders are the antithesis of role models. Psychopaths have traditionally been loners, cursed with a tainted genetic predisposition. In Elliot’s society, they actual marry one another to form strategic alliances, such as Tryell and his wife.
Unlike the genetic disposition of psychopaths, sociopaths are products of their environment. Terry Colby typifies the dehumanising effect of climbing the corporate ladder to the upper echelons. Capturing the banality of evil, he recalls the weather and snacks he ate with executives, on the day that his board voted to champion profits over human lives. No doubt the scene was inspired by the real-life incident where General Motors chose to retain a faulty vehicle design after analysis showed the cost to fix the design error was $8 a car, whereas the cost of ignoring the safety defect was only $2 per car, in terms of compensation to families of the deceased.

Cannibalistic or Conscious Capitalism

As one reviewer put it, Mr Robot may be fictional, but at least it helps us make sense of the strange new world taking shape beneath our feet.
In nature, there is no neutral state. Something is either growing or decaying. Perhaps it holds equally that there is no neutral state in how we relate to others. We are either anti-social or pro-social. You may have come across a recent meme that says, You seem to be on your own path. Unfortunately, there's a ‘socio’ in front of it. A fitting way to capture many of our in-name-only leaders of today.
When you think of a Police Commissioner you imagine someone whose chief focus is on the welfare of the officers who work under him. But what happens when the individualist, corporate mindset overrides one’s basic pro-social instincts? Here in NSW, our Police Commissioner fought fiercely to ensure his front line officers received only a 2.5% pay increase, which failed to match inflation. His reward for taking the anti-social stance? Receiving a 20% pay increase.

Australia’s most ‘successful’ businessman, Rupert Murdoch is famed for pitting his children against one another when it comes to whom might take the helm of his media empire. He is certainly not alone in his sociopathic tendencies. Gina Rinehart, our richest businesswoman, is another whose personal net worth exceeds $10 billion.

Daughter of a mining magnate, she asserted in her mid 20’s that “Whatever I do, whatever I do, the House of Hancock comes first. Nothing will stand in the way of that. Nothing.” So began her anti-social approach of company tax avoidance, reliance on government subsidies and exploiting temporary visa workers to lower wages. Despite inheriting her wealth and expanded it through questionable means, she regularly lambasts the most marginalised in society.

John Keats famously declared Beauty is truth, truth beauty. The poet believed that art conveyed insight better than any other human expression. Gina, sees things very differently, having argued that “Beauty is not neat squares of green land, or paintings, or jewellery or artefacts, or Paris boutiques. Beauty is an iron mine.” Not even motherhood could stem her myopic pursuit of wealth. Upon returning to work a fortnight after having her first child her first comment was, “Goodness. I’ve got to pick up two weeks work.” Years later her two eldest children would launch a lawsuit against her, claiming that she bullied them into signing documents to defraud them of mining profits. It has hard to determine which of our countries greatest “successes,” is actually the most deeply unhappy of the two.
Tale of Two Cities
Society has moved so far from a gifting and sharing economy, into one in which hoarding and inequality have become normalised. A friend recently shared with me his prediction that sometime soon, the indians will demand new chiefs. Going by the outcry Martin Shkreli just reaped, he may be right.
Having cut his teeth working in hedge funds and building a multi-million dollar fortune, Martin declined the philanthropic route, of sharing his wealth with worthwhile causes. Instead, he took the sociopathic approach of not only seeking further wealth but also pursuing it through exploiting some of the most vulnerable people of all. He purchased the rights to an anti-parasite medicine used by those who suffer from depleted immune systems, such as people living with AIDS. The next day, he increased the price of a pill from $13.50 to $750. With the dog eat dog nature of the business world, idealists and the civic-minded traditionally turned to politics to bring about a better society. These prosocial figures were called Statesman, a term defined as a respected political leader.
For Americans, the word brings to mind Abraham Lincoln who fought to end the scourge of slavery. In Australia, we regard a statesman to be someone like John Curtin. Like Lincoln, he grew up with very little. After the premature passing of his father, Curtin left school at 14 to get a job to support his widowed mother and family. Active in the anti-conscription movement he was a radical idealist, who dreamed of achieving a 'fair go' for all Australians. In contrast to our present hostility toward refugees, Curtin proclaimed, “This country could and should afford a welcome and a decent opportunity to every man or woman who, of their volition, seek to come here.” The recent documentary Chasing Asylum is a powerful indictment in how far our politicians have moved from Curtin’s stance.
Sadly today, the term that comes to mind for leaders that govern, is no longer that of statesman, but the anti-social term, politician. The Oxford dictionary defines one as, A person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement. In terms of American politics, a recent meme puts it most succinctly, Hillary Clinton: Top ten donor list - Banks, Corporations and Media. As for Australia, we now have a former investment banker in the top position, who unsurprisingly makes the list of the top 200 richest Australians. One of the privileges accompanying our top post has been the opportunity to live in Kirribilli House. But with an even more spectacular, $50 million waterside mansion, Malcolm Turnbull declined the offer.

With business and politics dropping the ball when it comes to nurturing the development of future generations, education has been the last bastion. That was, until a disturbing trend began recently, according to the anonymous blog, Secret Teacher:
“As I look around the staffroom I am struck by the fact that, among the piles of exercise books and unwashed coffee cups, there is an endangered species, dwindling to the point of extinction. I’m not talking about the semi-corporate teachers who look like they’d be more at home in a boardroom than a classroom – they are flourishing. The threatened group I speak of is the eccentric. Over my 10 years in teaching, I have seen eccentric colleagues pushed, blinking and disorientated, into a new world of lesson observations, targets, data and appraisals. The problem is that many of these mavericks, who wouldn’t recognise a lesson plan if it bit them on the behind and couldn’t care less about student data or targets, are brilliant. Perhaps it is inevitable that schools will become more corporate, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of great teachers who don’t quite fit the mould. The ones who make school memorable, make lessons enjoyable and inspire a love of learning.”
The Power of One
But enough dispiriting examples. Although sociopathic tendencies develop in imbalanced cultures, so too do exemplars and they are really where our attention should be directed. The maverick math teacher Jaime Escalante believed that “When properly prepared and motivated, all students can succeed at academically demanding work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background.” Working with the lowest functioning and socially disadvantaged kids, he managed to get them to excel in advanced calculus. His story was popularised in the film, Stand and Deliver. As Gaston Caperton pointed out, “Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.” Although he has passed on, there are many others who have picked up the baton, such as Wendy Kopp.

Showing that another world is possible on the political front, José Mujica spent the last five years using social legislation and personal example, to become Uruguay’s most famous president. While politicians maintain lifestyles far removed from those they represent, statesmen do otherwise. Upon becoming president in 2010, he was required to submit a declaration of his personal wealth. It came to around $2000, the value of his old car.

When addressing the Rio+20 summit he asked, “Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies?” Declining the luxurious house offered by the state, he chose to stay at his wife's farmhouse, where he and his wife work the land to grow flowers. Donating 90% of his salary to small entrepreneurs and charities that help the poor - his salary was in line with the average Uruguayan income of $200 a week. Mujica epitomised the truism that it is the poorest who are usually the most generous:
 “I'm called 'the poorest president,' but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”
When it comes to prosocial enterprises among the business world there are the large-scale endeavours such as Wikipedia and Linux, through to more localised gift exchange, such as Couch surfing and WWOOFING.As for an example of an individual, Aaron Feuerstein springs to mind.
When his textile factory burned down, he opted not to take the $300 million in insurance money and retire. Neither did he succumb to the temptation to build a new factory offshore to exploit cheaper labour. Instead, he attempted to rebuild the factory and used his own money to pay his 3000 staff wages and benefits over the three months it took to rebuild. In contrast to sociopathic self-interest, his concern was about the impact on his employees’ families and their local communities. Unable to recover economically, he became bankrupt but ‘wealthy.’ With the benefit of hindsight, he was asked if he wished he’d taken a different path. Adamant he did the right thing, he said, “We are charged with acting not for the moment but rather for the larger goal.”

Mental Health and Human Connection
After Adam Smith offered his theory about labour specialisation leading to greater wealth, he was careful to warn of the human cost that would accompany it, saying that choosing meaningless, but high paying rote work would render a person unable, “Of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment.” His warning is increasingly coming true.

It is frequently said that we are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how we relate to the environment. The same may be true socially. America’s National Institute of Mental Health, reported that rates of antisocial personality disorder had almost doubled over a period of 15 years. In Martha Stout’s book, The Sociopath Next Door, she argues that our western culture of individualism fosters both the development of antisocial behavior and the ability to disguise it. Eastern, more communal cultures tend to focus on the interrelatedness of all living things.

Filmmaker Roko Belic visited 14 different countries in an attempt to find what made people happy and he released his findings through a documentary. In the slums of India, he saw the poorest of the poor taking care of one another, “While those back home built fences around their homes and didn’t know the neighbors who they’ve lived next to for 10 years.” In Japan, he discovered a similar communal bond near Okinawa where the community came together after having its village burned down and family members lost during WWII.

He then turned to a Western attempt at restoring communal feeling, visiting a co-housing community in Denmark that a single mum with two kids joined. Not only did it relieve her of the financial burden, the extended family and sense of belonging restored her sense of wellbeing and happiness. Inspired to action by what he personally saw, Roko left his aloof suburban neighbourhood to move into a trailer park and remarked, “Literally, within the first two weeks of moving here, I met more people than I did in 10 years of having a house in the suburbs of San Francisco.”

Arthur Miller once commented that, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” It is time we saw through the hollowness of naked individualism and leave the mask of separation aside to embrace our interconnectedness. As Ian MacLaren simply put it, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Once again we’re facing an evolutionary fork in the road or a tipping point of sorts. Each of us must make the choice to side with the sociopaths and the worn out model of cannibalistic capitalism or join those taking the path of the heart as they usher in conscious capitalism and a return to community. The latter may still be a fringe affair, but the tide is turning, just as it has done with sexual equality, racial equality and gender equality over the last century.

Accompany us at an upcoming workshop and join with other practical dreamers to help determine what part it is you will play in the building of a better world.

“When one dreams alone, it is only a dream. When many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.” - Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Browse our list of resources, including a trailer to Roko Belic's documentary - Happy

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