You should know your soldiers’ names and their birthdays. You should know their spouses names and anniversaries. When someone has lost a loved one, wee sign cards for coworkers we barely know, telling them our thoughts and prayers are with them.
Is this genuine leadership or is this something else? And what happens when someone doesn’t know a spouse’s name or they don’t get birthday cards and cakes are they not good leaders?
The sociologist Erving Goffman pioneered the concept that everyday life is a stage – the rituals we go through are just that: rituals that keep everyday life moving along. His conception of the self is based in the presentation of ourselves to others – the stage (Goffman 1972). If leaders want to present themselves as good leaders, then they go through these rituals of knowing someone’s spouses name and anniversary, they make sure people’s private wishes to ignore their own birthday are publicly recognized. The presentation of self as a good leader is marked by these rituals, regardless of the meaning or lack thereof.
And the audience, in this case, the leaders’ soldiers comply. They smile, they sing happy birthday for peers they despise. They go through the ritual performance because that is reflecting back on them that they are good soldiers because good soldiers do what their leaders tell them. The ritual itself has no inherent meaning according to another sociologist, Emile Durkheim, other than to bring the group together in a collective (Durkheim 1996).
But if these are merely rituals that reinforce our sense of self, then what is the impact on the relationship between leaders and their soldiers? When asked about good leaders, most soldiers will say something about they genuinely care about them, they foster their professional growth and development. They rarely say their bosses know their birthday.
I know of a brigade commander who had index cards on all his key leaders. His secretary would give him the card before any meetings, reminding him of key touchstones: birthdays, etc. And in this officer’s mind, this was what good leaders did – if they didn’t know, they gave the appearance of knowing and the appearance of caring.
But when my daughter was in the intensive care for a fractured skull, this same leader did not ensure my husband came home from Iraq. This leader, who was so focused on metrics and performative leadership, did not truly lead when he had the opportunity to make a difference for our family. His wife reached out, asking what we needed and I said I wanted my husband home. Even the ritual performance failed because in that script, I was supposed to say I was fine and they were supposed to arrange some casseroles or something. I wasn’t supposed to genuinely say what I really needed.
What we needed in that moment was genuine leadership. What we got was performative leadership. And we remember this leader for his performance.
A genuine leader is going to build a successful team around them and is going to get that team working toward a common goal but also create a sense of unity and belonging.
Performative leadership gives the appearance of unity through ritual that everyone acknowledges is merely ritual. There is a lack of meaning in the ritual, and yet we all go along with it.
Performative leadership is good enough. We cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of the good. I would argue that genuine leadership is rare and often limited – meaning they have genuine impact on a few people. Additionally, most people lack the capacity to genuinely care about a large number of people: empathy, like morality, is limited (Ravven 2013; Miller 1996). Genuine leaders can most likely impact only a few people around them. Performative leaders can give the appearance of genuineness and this is sufficient to keep the organization functioning and necessary keep in place the building blocks of organizational effectiveness that enable mission accomplishment.
But we also cannot forget that genuine leadership is taking care of soldiers when they need it most. Genuine leaders know more important things than their soldier’s birthdays. Genuine leaders are truly inspirational and leave a lasting impact. Performative leaders enable the organization to keep running. We need both.
But we should not mistake one for the other.
Durkheim, Emile. 1996. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Karen E Fields. New York: Free.
Goffman, Erving. 1972. “The Presentation of Self to Others.” Simbolic Interaction. A Reader in Social Psychology (Ed. by JG Manis and BN Meltzer).–Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 234–244.
Miller, W. Watts. 1996. Durkheim, Morals and Modernity. Montreal; Buffalo: Mcgill Queens Univ Pr.
Ravven, Heidi M. 2013. The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. New York: New Press, The.