Idols, ideology and ideals

Charlie Weinberg, Whitney Iles and Khatuna Tsintsadze
Thursday, 25 February 2021

In this second edition of the Critical Care series by Iles, Tsintsadze and Weinberg, idols, ideology and ideals are considered.

The questions of leadership, agency, power and change are all wrapped up in psychological, political and personal meanings. This short piece begins to raise questions about those meanings and the impact of leadership in our lives.

Our world views, attitudes, beliefs and values underpin the way we perceive, experience and understand the world. Our ideologies can influence policy, ignite change and create frameworks of living through economic and political theory.

Across the social care sector, there is much talk about the need for role models, particularly for boys and how adult men can provide helpful and constructive attitudes for their younger counterparts, thus supporting the shaping and development of these young minds. Whilst it is possible to critique, disassemble and challenge this notion, it is also worth appreciating how we are all exposed to 'role models' whether we choose them or not.

For the last 90 years, British citizens have been able to elect their political leaders. Whilst it is arguable to what extent a political position implies being a 'role model', the responsibility for decisions, public interest and shared (party) intentions share some similarities with other ‘power’ vs ‘non-power’ groups. Parliamentary democracy means that government is the executive through which the people administer decisions, and the parliamentary representatives we elect, deliver policy on our behalf.

In the macrocosm, this governance structure is what business, charity, social and family often embody in microcosm - a hierarchy of authority invested from 'below' through a common and seemingly 'natural' order. It is perhaps in this context that the idea of 'leadership' has become synonymous with power, control and ultimate wisdom. We have created idols of those we invest in, divesting ourselves of autonomy and of placing our fate in the hands of others. One thing is to ask for and listen to a professional's advice (especially in the medical, legal, educational or construction sectors, for example). Another is to accept and enact any suggestions or commands purely based on a relationship of power.

A critical concept to consider when we think of leadership is that of 'followership'. In The Unconscious at Work, it is argued that far from being a passive or inactive function, "exercising one's authority to take up the followership role" is a vital and integral act. We make our leaders through our choices and agreements to follow; leaders do not appear in vacuums.

The balance, which is often lost, is between nurturing our followership and developing our autonomy and agency. If our ideological framework is unpopular or against the status quo, it challenges leadership and the agreement to follow. Often this dynamic creates a grey area, which may well cause discomfort. Few situations are more prominently remembered or felt than when our chosen leaders let us down. 

Perhaps there is an element of projection in how we are willing to create idols of those whose ideologies we favour. If the idea of leading ourselves, being fully accountable, responsible and aware of our thoughts, feelings and actions is overpowering, perhaps splitting some of that off and giving it away to someone else, helps us cope with our realities.

Of course, it is impossible to be individually responsible and accountable for systemic issues like poverty, racism or sexism. Still, it is essential to understand our relationship and participation in those dynamics. That can be overwhelming, confusing and difficult at times. By asking leaders to be responsible for those aspects of our lives, perhaps we relieve ourselves of some burdens that feel too heavy to carry. 

Our ideas are worthy of, and indeed require, intense scrutiny. For us to live our best lives and to develop the networks, support and community we envision is a collective effort. We will each have an image of a 'best life' and we will each face obstacles, disadvantage and dissuasion from achieving that. Following leaders towards it is an option and can be extremely helpful, even vital, but leading ourselves is equally crucial.

Being the agent of our experience is a challenge and one we must all assume if we are to genuinely achieve models of leadership that can deliver collective benefits.

The Critical Care series is intended to provoke, promote and invite colleagues from a range of situations and positions, to think through and engage in debate about the ways we lead, follow, invest and deliver our own individual and institutional authority.