Leaders and citizens

Communities and leadership — that’s what we are thinking about today.

Humans are social animals, and our remarkable success on this planet is due to our ability to work together on increasingly larger levels of community — from family to village to tribe to nation to international coalitions — and perhaps someday to planet, species and cosmos.

Community teamwork requires people to set differences aside and live and work with others whom they don’t always agree with.

Yet we do not operate from one hive mind the way ants and bees seem to do. Each human acts as an individual but can agree, for mutual benefit, to coordinate with others, yet we can leave our options open. Team sports are in example of this, as is, sadly, war. The team plan greatly strengthens our actions, but individual players or soldiers sometimes change plans on the fly, reacting to observations or inspiration. Our greatest mistakes and successes are born from these solo moves. When they work in a big way, and when the motive is to serve others in the community to a remarkable degree, we have a special word for it: heroism.

That freedom of choice should be part of any good plan.

That brings us to leadership. Good leaders, like good coaches, should first know the players, the game and the environment; make plans that make the most of what’s available; and then be flexible, trusting individuals to improvise.

In other words, trust and be trusted.

We see all kinds of ways in which leaders screw up. Some are so bound by plans, systems and rules that they squelch the soul and cut themselves off from individuals’ brilliance. Some are all heart and gut but don’t plan well, leading to confusion and ultimately chaos. Some don’t communicate their expectations well enough to the players or the larger community, leading to factions. Some take too many of the community’s resources for themselves, setting up lives of luxury for after the season ends. They think people will allow this, and they often do, but it always deadens loyalty to know that one’s leader is doing it as a lucrative job rather than a selfless mission.

We are thinking of all this as members of our community step up to run for elected office in local, state and federal government.

Leaders are not always chosen by election of the people. Our society is still loaded with hierarchies, including most of our workplaces, and for the most part they get the job done. In a military unit, for instance, soldiers have enough to worry about without being distracted and burdened by the need to choose their leaders. They’re better off trusting them, and trusting the wisdom, such as it is, of those higher up the chain of command who chose those leaders.

But depending so heavily on a handful of individuals at the top of the pecking order is a risk for a community, which is why democracy developed. It’s messy but more stable in many situations, and our democratic republican system takes advantage both of the will of the people and the strengths of the individuals they choose to represent them.

We, too, have a part to play on this government team. In these hyper-partisan times in the United States, too many people are fighting an ideological power struggle rather than working for the common good. We often trust ourselves or a political party to know what’s best, but that leaves out big parts of the community’s whole perspective. Also, many of us narrowly follow our own interests and just don’t care much about what others think.

Community requires some humility. Like a kid told to do chores, we sometimes would do better off setting aside our differences, egos and anger, and do some work that benefits others.

That’s not to say we always need to follow marching orders we don’t trust, but we can’t just do what we want. That balance of teamwork and individual action is where humans succeed.

So choose your leaders well in this year’s elections. Expect them to know and trust you, and to be selfless in service of the community. And then do your part for the community, too.