Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Leadership - Our Addiction to an Industry - by Guest Blogger - Iben Ismarson, Indonesia

Iben Ismarson graduated from Lund University Sweden where he studied managing people, knowledge and change. He is experienced in organizational development and holds interest n environment. Currently he is working towards his non profit Eco-Indonesia.

For the last few months, I have owed Jamil, a very kind and respectable friend I met at Mosaic Summer School, to write an article for a collective blog organized by him. The main reason it took so long for me to finally write is because he asked me to write about something that I have almost lost my faith in i.e. ‘Leadership’. The thought of ‘leadership’ is not so intriguing for my brain to kick my fingers to write as the thought of “God’ might not be so appealing for an atheist. I’m not an atheist though; I just cease to believe that such an over-glorified concept like leadership does exist in this world. To be more precise, Our World - Nowadays. . All that’s left for me when I think of leadership is just an image or a perception in people’s mind. It’s the label that we voluntarily ascribed to people, certain people such as some presidents, kings or prince, and if you wonder why are we doing so? Because we want to believe that it does exist.

As a human being, we inherently are thirsty of hope, and we pin our hope to the shoulders of someone with an attractive personality and call them leaders of our society. For me, Leaders are the projection of our fear, insecurity, helplessness as human being, no more and no less than that. When we look with a microscopic lens onto the life of leaders the whole notion of a great and perfect person will quickly melt in the air. They’re just human being, full of flaws, and nonetheless share the same fear, insecurity and helplessness just like those who ascribed the label of leaders to them.

As I write this note, in the next 2 hours Barack Obama will be landing in Indonesia, Halim International Airport for a 24 hrs visit to Indonesia, for the first time as US president. Road blockade, sweeping and sterilization has been done for the last 2 days in critical points of Jakarta to make sure everything’s going well for the visit of U.S No 1 – Their leader (if I can label him so). The fact that Obama spent 4 years of his childhood in Indonesia, made him such a heroic figure for Indonesians, who believe that “he is an Indonesian who succeeded to become the president of the greatest nation on earth”. This idea lives in the mind of Indonesian people, that’s why Indonesians love Obama so much. We are crazy about him, because we want to believe that all Indonesians have the same hope of success. And because of this very reason we choose to neglect the fact that today because of his visit, some traffic jam will occur in several areas near the blockade roads, some people takes more time to reach their offices and schools, some small food stall owners couldn’t do business and be deprived of their livelihood because their operation area is being sterilized. We choose to forget that there’s no substantial change in his policy regarding Palestine-Israel, and troops are still supporting war in Afghanistan. Why? Just because we need to keeps this idea of good and great leaders growing in our head. I would like to create analogy here through Freud’s statement: As religion is opium for the society, so are the leaders and leadership are real opium for the humans and society at large nowadays.

I have a wild hypothesis regarding to our society’s addiction upon the ideas of leadership. Maybe because most of us who are an adult nowadays were once growing up with the idea of some Superman, Batman and Spiderman who can save the world with their special amazing ability, we now want to keep the idea alive in our subconscious mind. We still want that Superman, we want leaders! And some of us even want to be that superman, they want to be leaders. We tend to forget that Superman lives only in a kryptonic imagination of his creator, and that he’s just only a figure created by comic industry.

Leadership is none less than an industry on its own. Go to the bookstores and we can find a special sections filled with thousands of books under the headings of “Leadership”. Each of them will offer you different theories and definition about leadership. They are usually list out hundreds, if not thousands ‘flowery’ words and vocabularies about the traits and attributes of leaders. Based on numerous researches, as they claim, they will undoubtedly map out the path to become leaders. As if those writers had seen a factory that manufactured leaders, they will insist that you can be one if you follow their prescribed path. This ridiculous idea, that there are some magic formulas on how to become an effective leader, made me kind of tired of going to the bookstore or reading books on leadership. I can imagine that it will take me a lifetime efforts to read and grasps all the ideas in those books, and even if I finally do, I think I’m going to ask God for a second life to practice what they have outlined in their books.

And as the industry goes, Universities conduct huge amount of research to back up the notion of leadership. Consultants also reap the fruits of this growing industry through teachings, trainings, workshops and projects in many organizations who want to grow leaders for tomorrow. Companies keep telling the bedtime stories about leaders who grow from the bottom to instill hopes in the mind of their employees that someday might be able to become that big corporate guy at the top: The Leader. The whole industry conspires and grows upon the very basic and fragile need of human being: the need of finding hope and images of success. But if we look at the reality of our society nowadays, despite of these growing crowd and continuous effort to create leaders everywhere we must admit that it still so hard to find and spot true leaders. We are actually lacking them and we always waiting for them. And this absence, again, create even more business for many.
Images of leaders appear everywhere on our TV, websites and probably even at the cover of our books, notepad or posters we hang on our wall. Often they inspire us and make us eager to pursue their paths. We are told to be the leaders of our time and we look up to these images. Maybe some will argues that this may be a good thing, but my take is a little bit different. I believe that such approach will most likely make most of us fall in the trap of trying to become someone else, and forgetting to know and accept who we really are as an individual person. We are focusing our energy too much to have those leadership traits and attributes taught by the books and consultants but we put little attention to understand our own traits and characters that have been shaped by our unique circumstances in our lives. If there is such a thing as leaders in this world, I believe they are the ones who denied to be called leaders. If there’s someone out there who really practice leadership in our society, I believe this person will reject to label what he’s doing as a leader. True Leadership and true leaders are not labeled, they are the essence behind the labels. It is the meaning and the understanding of our experiences and journey as a human, framed in every action of ours where we try to make ourselves and our surroundings a better place. Maybe, just maybe… if we stop thinking, forgetting for a while the idea of leader and leadership, then we can really start to practice true leadership and become a real leader.


  1. What a radical perspective. Independent thinkers, Iben, are an asset. It's great to read something like this_ fresh, uninfluenced, bold, unconventional. There is weight in what you say, to a large extent. The messianic concept of leaders is the outcrop of a stunted, immature, servile mindset. That is why we are such a lot of hero-worshippers, blind-followers waiting for Godot to do miracles for us. But what I think is very important, Iben, is the distinction you make in your last line with TRUE leadership which doesnt come with leadership rhetoric thats almost gone commercial and can never deliver. You indicate that this TRUE leadership is linked to PRACTICE, and I would like to add that this practice is rooted in ones personal faith, values, passion, and inner strength.
    We all have to be the leaders in our spheres, the shepherds to our flocks, as the Prophet (SAW) reminded us.
    Thanks for a refreshing article.

  2. Thanks Memoona, it's a pleasure for me to be positively commented by an experienced writer like you.

    You are also very sharp to point out the whole underlying idea behind the article, about TRUE leadership and PRACTICE.

    As much as I want it, I must admit that at the end of the day I can not totally deny the fact that there is such thing as TRUE leadership, as what the Prophet (SAW) has taught us all.

    Afterall I do still believe that 'a little faith is all we need and a little hope won't cause any harm' :)