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Leadership, deservedness and religion

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted January 4, 2010

The popular media inevitably veers towards a juicy scandal, and the popular-science segment is no exception. Scandal sells, and pop-science writers can tell themselves they're agents of intellectual uplift when they join in. People tend to learn more, and be more receptive to learning, when they're interested in the result. "A Mathematical Modeling Of Brownian Motion In Molecules" has a lot less reach than "A Mathematical Method To Determine If Options Are Underpriced."

Perhaps unfortunately, it's the same thing with scandal. Try putting out a collection of memos and briefing books under the title "Building A Better Welfare: Recent Advances In HEW Administration And Social Assistance Distribution, As Seen In Real Time." You'll be lucky to sell ten copies, unless some professor or administrator agrees to make it part of a curriculum. On the other hand, a collection of memos from the Defense Department entitled "Warmongers Exposed: Secret Operating Procedure Of The Pentagon War Machine In Iraq", will sell like the proverbial hot-cakes.

LiveScience has seized the day by putting out a piece devoted to philandery. Inspired in large part by Tiger Woods' escapades, the website has published "Why Men Cheat: A Year of Philandering." The content had enough reach to make Yahoo! News.

Although the bulk of it is devoted to the causes of adultery, there's a section that deals with the question of leadership – one that's a real eye-opener.

Power and Entitlement

"Power can make a person stricter in moral judgment of others while being less strict of their own behavior, new research suggests." In other words, there's an innate tendency for the power-holder to become like the oft-sighted self-righteous hypocrite. All it takes is an I-came-into-my-own mentality to elicit such behavior.

Of course, there are differences between the lab and real life. These experiments examined people that were given power, as based upon assignment of roles. In the real world, power tends to be earned. It's unclear whether or not earning power drains that tendency to be stricter on others than on oneself.

The regular world has, or at least had, a method to check any tendency towards self-righteous hypocrisy. It was called "getting your hands dirty." When future bosses had to put time in the trenches just like everyone else, they learned what it was like to be on the short end of the power stick. Once empowered, they could be veered from self-righteous hypocrisy by talking about the old days when they were bossed. This solution isn't ideal, as the result was sometimes fair but harsh. "That's what I had to do when I was in the trenches, and that's what you're going to do too." Harsh, but fair.

However, a fair ride isn't the optimal outcome for those who want an easy ride. We all know that there's a tendency to redefine "fair" as meaning "unfair to my benefit." The same article explains how to get it from a power-holder, in a single sentence that says volumes: "Another experiment in this study found that people who don't feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others."

Easy Ride

Therein lies an optimality. Easy bossing can be derived by having a boss that believes (s)he isn't worthy of the power (s)he's gotten. When that type of leader is ensconced, (s)he is harder on self than on others. This type of boss in the kind who'd stay to midnight while letting others go home at five. "I'm not them, and the outcome matters more to me than to them. I'll just put in the time myself and not be too hard on my subordinates, as I don't want to treat them like a tyrant."

The job analogy comes easiest because it's the closest-to-home experience we have with bossing. However, political bossing is more pervasive and a lot harder to get away from. It seems more diffuse because a nation's a lot bigger than a company, and the boss-to-subject ratio is a lot higher. Rest assured, though, that any politico who insists or implies that government has first claim on all the wealth of a nation, definitely sees government officials as the bosses of the nation. The bossing may come through laws and regulations, not through less formal means, but bossing it is if that principle is accepted. To repeat: anyone who sees the nation's resources as being at the government disposal sees political leaders as the bosses of us all. Policies enacted under that rubric are in the same ballpark as disguised orders. And remember: insubordination in the workplace means disincentives are applied. Unfit for promotion, no raise, a scolding. At worst, firing and a bad reference. In the case of politics, "insubordination" means fines, jail, a criminal record. That's why the law has traditionally been hallowed as a space where ordinary power motivations are deemed petty.  

If such venalities are let into the law-making process, then the incentive for easy bossing is ratcheted up considerably. There's a more urgent need amongst the subjects to have the political bosses be harder on themselves than on their inferiors – and a much greater need to scotch out the self-righteous hypocrite.

The "company country" model is, of course, most fully matched by socialism. Under a socialist system, the government is legally the boss of everyone. In one of history's ironies, the easy-bossing incentive is most fully matched by aristocracy. There is thus a tendency for a socialist system to become aristocratic, because of a desire for easy bossing amongst the bossed.

With that incentive in mind, the obvious weakness of aristocracy – people attaining power without doing anything to deserve it – becomes its strength. People who haven't earned their high station are aware of it, if raised properly, and can be reminded of it if they're not. Thus, there's a tendency for aristocrats to be bosses that are harder on themselves than they are on others. The underlying insecurity can even be inculcated by turning it into a virtue. To treat a mere peasant as if he should live by the higher law, how base and venal! Only the truly noble are capable of showing God's mercy and clemency to peasants!

The Influence Of Religion

Hence the interrelatedness of religion and aristocracy. After all, there's no guarantee that a scion won't fall into self-righteous hypocrisy. The not-to-be-questioned word of a Supreme Being acts as a checkrein on those who would otherwise show an entitlement mentality.

In more ordinary life, regardless of the political set-up, religion does a service by linking power with humility. All major religions – not just Christianity - inculcate the idea that displaying a self-righteous attitude offends the Supreme Being. It is simplistic to peg The Supreme Being as the top boss over all the faithful, but that characterization does clamp down on human arrogance. No wonder atheism and arrogance, in less mediated popular folkways, are so frequently associated with each other. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.





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