Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Leadership is ultimately toxic and unsustainable

Most problems worth solving can’t be solved by one person, only by teams and organizations (teams of teams).

But organizations, especially as they get larger than six or seven people, have a problem. The goals of individuals on the team aren’t often the same as the goals of the organization (or other individuals). This misalignment of goals causes conflict between people and wasted resources (time, materials, opportunity) for the organization.   

The solution we have now for the misalignment problem is leadership. The organization designates a person who is charged with leading and managing the organization. They set the goals for the organization and are given the power to give orders and fire people who don’t measure up.

By creating leaders and developing leadership, the problem of alignment between and individual and organizational goals is solved.

Unfortunately, leaders and the concept of leadership make corruption, a different and perhaps more pervasive organizational problem, worse. 

Because we choose to live in human societies instead of the state of nature, corruption is inevitable.  Human societies have randomized and unevenly balanced resource endowments, which make imbalances of power, and therefore conflict, inevitable. We create rules to help mediate conflict, but rules require an enforcer of the rules that are established. 

When we designate people to enforce rules, it requires us to concentrate power. And because we are mere mortals, with great power comes great temptation to act corruptly.  

By creating leaders in any organization, we further concentrate power. Therefore, the more we create leaders and elevate the concept of leadership, the more we enable corruption to occur.

If leadership is our solution to the problem of organizational alignment, we should expect to exacerbate the problem of corruption.

Leadership is akin to chemotherapy to me. It attacks the cancer of organizational alignment, but is toxic because it breeds the conditions for corruption to occur.

We have to do better at improving leadership, just as we need to improve chemotherapy. I don’t disagree with that.

But at the end of the day, leadership is not a sustainable solution to organizational misalignment. Ultimately, leadership is toxic. We can do better.

In the coming months, I will share alternatives to leadership that I have been thinking about.