originally published August 2019
It is no surprise that most of us believe leaders are both necessary and impossible to do without. Leaders are the reason we look at the clock when we wake up. Leaders guide our life paths. We dream of the leaders we wish to follow and we dream of becoming leaders with loyal followers. Leaders direct so much of our lives that we assume leadership is a simple state of nature. When leaders betray our expectations, they become corrupt to our eyes, signaling the time for a new one. When we think change is necessary, we look for a leader to manifest that change. With the myth of leadership so pervasive and widespread, it’s no coincidence that the structure of our society and the concept of leadership both have hierarchy in common.
Capitalism needs the myth of leadership to maintain control over what we think is possible. Just as capitalism is, by design, inseparable from profit; leadership is attached to hierarchical power. The myth of leadership assumes that one individual or decision-making body has an innate ability to know what is best for everyone else. Hierarchical power is based on the ability to make uncontested commands. To command is to threaten. What is a command that cannot be enforced? To threaten is to coerce someone into acting against their own interests. Lucky for us, the myth of leadership makes the threat of enforcement tolerable by assuming that leaders are benevolent.
Capitalism bases the value of human life on currency, and the myth of leadership values people according to how much hierarchical power they have. This ableist worldview is the one we find ourselves fighting against daily, but leadership will not save us. Under capitalism, we cannot all be bosses and we cannot all be leaders. Bosses need workers to exploit, and leaders need followers to direct. The process of deciding who gets what role is inherently ableist. We need a counter to hierarchical power. Where hierarchical power is unidirectional, horizontal power is multi-dimensional because it enables us to create any number of new futures.
In our struggle to create a new future, who, if not a leader, do we look to? We liberate our minds from the myth of leadership by aspiring to become harmonizers. Harmonizers embody horizontal power by stepping outside of ableist notions of productivity in order to embrace a person’s intrinsic value and autonomy. Instead of looking to leverage skills, knowledge, and capacity as reasons they should be followed, harmonizers seek sustainable practices that build collective agency. Harmonizers make themselves answerable to collective agency by asking, “Did I get this right?” “What would make this easier for us?”
Whereas followers are subject to the leader’s individual agency, who instead asks “Why didn’t you get this right?” “What do you need to get this right?” The leader obsesses over who is and is not willing to follow, while the harmonizer diligently checks in to keep folks attuned to each other’s needs. Through this mutuality we reach a collective understanding of the obstacles we face, completing the first step towards a more desirable future. Previously in this Time Series, we discussed how the ability to synchronize and build affinity with each other eludes the many forms of social control we navigate in our daily lives.
The role of harmonizer focuses on cultivating patience and trust so that we can later learn to synchronize within our affinity groups, from a place of love and solidarity. The challenge of horizontal organizing is figuring out how to establish sustainability. So, harmonizers ask, “how do we bring lives, not just in contact with each other, but into each other, entwined and better able to thrive?” They know, when our capacity begins to reflect our dreams and our collective care resonates with our needs, sustainability will resemble something we might call harmony.