I have some lovely friends who regularly feed my appetite for things to read. Sometimes it’ll be at a special occasion, and sometimes just because they’re lovely people.
One of these people is my friend Ben. Ben loves buying books for people more than anyone I know. He really takes the time to choose something he thinks will challenge or provoke the literary recipient’s thinking. No book bought by him is ever accidental, there’s always thought, time and love put into the choice. I’m a very willing recipient of this generosity. My bookcases are lined with brilliant books on all sorts of subjects chosen and given by Ben.
At Christmas he gave me a book called Future Perfect by Steven Johnson. It’s a fascinating-looking book that I was intrigued by when I was given it. But, in the course of a house move, and subsequent decorating carnage, it was put into a box. A couple of weeks ago I was looking for something to read on my all too often commutes and Future Perfect leapt off my shelf at me… not literally of course, that book would be buried like Jumanji somewhere in the local river if that happened.
The book is all about “progress in a networked age”. I don’t do well with rhetoric or management speak. The idea of streamlining my network to spite my interface makes me cringe, but this was different. For a few years now I’ve been obsessed with leaderless-ness. As someone who’s been asked to lead since I was a teenager, I’m fascinated by the concept of leadership and the effect it can have on those who, often by choice, follow.
I’ve got loads of questions about why we instinctively appoint leaders in so many areas of our lives. Why we rush to find “suitable replacements” when a leader moves on. Why we explode with joy when we get a “good one” and self-combust when we think we’ll be without one.
Perhaps, like a candidate on The Apprentice, we feel the need to start each task by appointing someone to take charge; someone to arrange the sub-teams, direct the strategy, and lead the way. If all goes well, we can applaud their efforts while subversively reminding them it was a team effort. And if not, we can all turn on them, either vocally or by letting our silence speak volumes.
Perhaps we’re scared that if we don’t have someone in charge things will descend into chaos. Decisions won’t get made, stuff won’t get done and life will come to a standstill.
Perhaps we’re just lazy. It’s easier to let someone else do it. We’ll pitch in every now and again but ultimately let them think, act and speak for us. Besides, if they’re good at it then it makes more sense for us to sit back and let them get on with it.
If you’re in church, it might also be that we’ve made the idea of leadership so deeply spiritual that only those ‘called’ or ‘anointed’ or whatever other word we’ve come up with, can lead.
Whatever the reason, I’m fascinated by the alternative. Businesses, organisations, communities, even whole societies that operate effectively without needing someone in charge. Groups of people who recognise each others’ skills, strengths and value in real terms. Who are trying to figure out how to live, work and operate together without the need to promote or relegate individuals to meet a need, real or perceived.
Future Perfect is a book that points to this alternative and gives me hope that it’s not a pipe dream… but it’s not the only thing.
Those lovely people I spoke about right at the start, they give me hope too. You see, no one appointed Ben literary chief executive. We didn’t form a sub-group, hold a vote, or pray and discern God’s will over his book-purchasing gift. The same is true for the rest of them. No one is ordained as head of wisdom management. We’ve had not one single promotion to president of party-planning. And, to my knowledge, the role of commander in chief is still vacant… and yet, we haven’t imploded, forgotten how to be friends, or stopped functioning. And even if we did, I’m pretty sure we’d find a way to get through it without appointing a conflict manager.
Like all good friendships, this is a messy idea with few boundaries and the potential for chaos.
Like all good ideas, it’s open to discussion and can be countered well by those who disagree or want to explore.
Like all good alternatives it sounds too good to be true and so, for many, will be written off before it’s even considered too thoroughly.
And yet, I remain intrigued and inspired by the idea that there’s another way.
A way that says, ‘join me’ rather than ‘watch me’.
A way that values everyone, not just those at the top, or the front.
A way that inspires real togetherness.
This is a headline, and in practice I have no idea what it looks like or how it works. So I’m still exploring, still experimenting, and still expecting great things. Because, for me, ‘too good to be true’ is a chance worth taking… it might just be too good to miss.