On Leadership

AKA On Legitimacy

The failure of our institutions is putting a premium on leadership. Presidents of MIT, Harvard, and UPenn are unable to forcefully condemn calls for genocide against the Jews. The President of Harvard has remained in her position despite credible accusations of plagiarism. Fauci remains a liberal icon despite covering up the possibility of a lab leak. The American military did not fire a single general after a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. These failures and more have created a premium on effective leadership that the next generation must step into. 

The current lack of leadership is in part due to structural constraints. Our country, arguably Western civilization, is stuck in the innovator's dilemma. In the 19th century, particularly the post-war era, our ancestors built today’s institutions. They were largely fit for the times, creating our current prosperity. However, the rents have piled up, making our institutions sclerotic, brittle, and unable to cope with a changing world. Disruptive technology, e.g. the internet, social media, and now AI have created a world our institutions aren’t built for, and we’re seeing their failure to adapt. 

In our parents' generation, institutions were the pathway to success. They had prestige, capital, and influence. Getting to the top meant climbing the relevant ladder. Change, however, requires leadership. While we need new institutions, those new institutions will be the result of human action, of people and communities with vision that set out to create those institutions. 

The internet has also changed the requirements for leadership. Power is more transparent. Harvard threatening litigation to prevent credible accusations of plagary against their president and Fauci trying to cover up the possibility of a lab leak both leaked, and their leaking feels like it was inevitable. As the walls of institutions crumble and their power recedes, it is no longer possible to hide and bully dissenters. 

The changing world requires a new generation of leadership. One that is based on earned legitimacy from trust in communities and delivering something people want. To paraphrase YC, ‘build something people want’. This applies not just to startups, but to leadership more broadly. Some key aspects of new dynamics of leadership include;

  • Vision; Detailing and communicating a vision that people rally behind
  • Transparency; It’s critical to be transparent about your intentions with all relevant stakeholders
  • Competence; Deliver on your promises
  • Talent spotting; Identifying and promoting talent within and around your network
  • Long time horizon; Our institutional transition is going to take decades. Understanding that and being willing to work on a long time horizon is critical

Over the coming decades our institutions will continue to decay. New leaders will emerge and build competing institutions or try to take over existing ones. It is critical to be thoughtful about leadership, create an environment for a new generation of leaders to emerge, and be thoughtful about who we choose to follow.

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