Fear, Stress and the Lure of the Strong Man: The Face of Leadership in the 21st Century

Transactional leaders should be viewed in the same way as the strong man archetype: not fit for leadership in a modern world. 

On the eve of the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, many were shaking their heads not out of political opposition, but for what one might describe as the most unprecedently un-Presidential leader of the free world ever, and asking how we got here.

There are lots of theories about the ‘disenfranchised middle class’ or the rejection of ‘elitism’ and the ‘status quo’, but there may well be something more primal that drives people to chose uncharacteristically in times of severe challenge.

Under conditions of acute stress and trepidation, human beings have a tendency to revert to their ‘lizard brain’ where the oldest and most primitive animal instincts are governed. This is the part in charge of the ‘seven F’s’ of animal behaviour: fight, flight, freeze, feed, fornicate, fear and fixate.

…the leader who appeals to your lizard brain is not one of great nuance and reason…

In turbulent times, when outside threats and uncertainty nestles in for what we feel like (or are told) is for the long term, people’s thinking can ‘devolve’. We start to think like our ancient cave dweller cousins, living in some terrifying antediluvian wilderness. We search for a deep, dry cave, surround ourselves with people of our own tribe and seek to elevate a ferocious leader – preferably wielding fire – and an explicit willingness to handle the brutality of the world we fear.

In a contemporary context, those ancient fears of animal attack, tribal war, failed hunts and becoming outcast are transferred to modern-day challenges of immigration, globalisation, terrorism, loss of racial and national identity, under-employment, financial ruin, disease and personal disenfranchisement.

It’s hardly surprising then, when you believe these challenges stalk you like a sabre tooth tiger of old, that the leader who appeals to your lizard brain is not one of great nuance and reason, not a compromiser or a wordsmith and certainly not a person who will seek consensus before they act.

Our instincts under those conditions, wants a “doer”: the biggest, boldest, most direct and decisive man in the cave. We want a larger-than-life presence with a singular voice. After all, this is someone we want to to shield and protect us when the metaphorical sabre tooth attacks, and live to tell the tale.

This is the evolutionary lure of the strong man archetype.

Under duress, the price of licking a leaders post-fight wounds and eating only the scraps left after he (invariably) has feasted, seem a small price to pay for having ‘absolute’ protection from a terrifying world.

The difficulty is, we aren’t neanderthals anymore. The emotionally illiterate, intellectually incurious, didactic, autocratic, transactional protector is not just a leader from another time – their utility is quite literally a figment of our imagination.

In practical terms the world requires more nuance, more compromise, more diplomacy, more collaboration and a more distributed leadership than the strong man will ever tolerate, because these are factors that make the strong man inexorably redundant.

I hope the strong man archetype will not become the default for future leadership choices in politics, the workplaces or education, but I do know that the solution is not in trying to change the strong man after he’s received his original mandate. One of the characteristics of strong men is they don’t change in ways we might consider important or meaningful: force will always be met with inordinate force; rage with greater rage, and passivity will be met with the utmost contempt and then ever more force.

In ancient times, the followers of strong men would only have to wait for them to pick a fight they can’t win (often sooner rather than later) and hope that whatever beast bested him would be full by the time it got to them.

There are still monsters in the world…and they are mostly the strong man archetype.

Now we can use the years of evolution that have honed our minds to wrangle our baser nature. We can challenge our own desire for absolute strength and certainty, and instead embrace the idea that the world is not black and white. That difficult, nuanced choices need to be made on the basis of heavily scrutinised, collaboratively gained evidence – sometimes without an absolute certainty of outcome. This is at least part of the winning formula for a better future for us all and it requires us to look away from our joy or distain at whatever strong man currently represents us and examine in what ways – from casual conversations and social media posts, to the voting booth – that we contributed to their rise.

I didn’t watch the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, not out of distain or disrespect, but because I’ve spent enough time looking at this particular strong man and understanding how he gained power, and now it’s time to look at what role I can play to make sure the next leaders whose rise I can influence are not of his ilk.

There are still monsters in the world, but they are mostly people, and more than that, they are mostly the strong man archetype. Setting up a clash of Titans in order to shift the riches of the world towards one side or another tends only to leave us all impoverished – bloodied by the battle and fighting for scraps in the end.

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