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A Different kind of Builders Manifesto

I couldn’t resist posting this provocative piece about leadership by Umair Haque, a Director of the Havas Media Lab and Bubblegeneration, in the Harvard Review.  Haque offers a new interpretation of  ‘Constructivism’, the artisitic and architectural movement defined in Wikipedia as ‘an artistic and architectural movement that originated in Russia from 1919 onward which rejected the idea of “art for art’s sake” in favour of art as a practice directed towards social purposes’.

The Builders’ Manifesto

Dear World Leaders,

This relationship isn’t working out. Its time for us to explore other government opportunities. We’ve tried to make it work. But it’s not us — it’s you (really).

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately. Specifically: why, today, when a wave of crises is sweeping the globe, does leadership seem to be almost totally absent?

The answer I’ve come to is, ironically enough, leadership itself. I’d like to advance a hypothesis: 20th century leadership is what’s stopping 21st century prosperity.

Let’s face it. The very word “leader” feels like a relic of 20th century thinking. And it just might be that the case that instead of aspiring to be (or train) more “leaders,” we should be seeking to reboot leadership. Why? When we examine the economics of leadership from a 21st century standpoint, we see that:

Leadership was built for 20th century economics. It’s a myth that leadership is a set of timeless skills. Is it? Abraham Zaleznik famously defined leadership as “using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” Influence is the key word. The textbook skills of the “leader” — persuasion, delegation, coalition — aren’t universally applicable. Rather, they fit a very specific context best: the giant, evil, industrial-era organization.

Leaders don’t lead. How did this particular skillset emerge? Influence counts because the vast, Kafkaesque bureaucracies that managed 20th century prosperity, created, in turn, the need for “leaders”: people who could navigate the endlessly twisting politics at the heart of such organizations, and so ensure their survival. But leaders don’t create great organizations — the organization creates the leader. 20th century economics created a canonical model of organization — and “leadership” was built to fit it.

Leadership can be a bad. Organizations are just tools — and leaders are just more proficient users. When would a tool need a more proficient user — a leader — most? When the opportunity cost is greatest: exactly when that tool is about to be outcompeted by a better tool. Leaders are created when organizations are threatened to ensure organizational survival. But sometimes organizational death is the optimal outcome. That’s exactly what we see in the real world: leaders unleashing bailout after bailout, horse-trade after horse-trade, to ensure the survival of yesterday’s malfunctioning machines. The economics suggest that 20th century leadership lets dysfunctional organizations thrive at the expense of prosperity.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. What leaders “lead” are yesterday’s organizations. But yesterday’s organizations — from carmakers, to investment banks, to the healthcare system, to the energy industry, to the Senate itself — are broken. Today’s biggest human challenge isn’t leading broken organizations slightly better. It’s building better organizations in the first place. It isn’t about leadership: it’s about “buildership”, or what I often refer to as Constructivism.

Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions. Like artistic Constructivism rejected “art for art’s sake,” so economic Constructivism rejects leadership for the organization’s sake — instead of for society’s.

Builders forge better building blocks to construct economies, polities, and societies. They’re the true prime movers, the fundamental causes of prosperity. They build the institutions that create new kinds of leaders — as well as managers, workers, and customers.

Who’s a Builder — and who’s just a leader? Here are some Builders contrasted with mere leaders: (link to full article)

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