Thursday, February 14, 2008

Leadership's Role in Ancient History

Leadership is a big buzzword these days at Business Schools across the country and that's no exception at mine. We were given a couple of books of recommended reading on the subject before classes started, and I found Daniel Goleman's book, Primal Leadership (you can buy here) on the subject very interesting. The research conclusions postulated in the book talk a lot about the sociological impact of leadership positions. Apparently, a leadership position's power (usually granted by a piece of paper via title, or job description etc.) dictates that subordinates will subconsciously react to the emotions, personality and emotional state of the person in that position. These are subconcious reactions much stronger than the ones to their peers, friends or co-workers. An example of this is that when you're in a meeting with your boss, apparently, you're more likely to take visual cues from his/her demeanor and his/her reactions than to anyone else's. You will look to your boss for reinforcement to what you said or to what someone else said. If your boss is in a bad mood and sullen, the meeting will be a sullen one and leave everyone in the room in a bad mood. Frankly, having worked in a few different places, I agree with this statement. I also can see that the business world and world history are both filled with strong leaders who have accomplished great things (both positive and negative). It's this thinking about leadership that led me to question the western (or Euro-centric) determinism Jared Diamond wrote about in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs & Steel. In the book, Diamond lists all the factors that led to the exact moment in history that Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spaniard soldiers were able to successfully surprise an army of 80,000 Inca warriors, capture their leader and (eventually) enslave and destroy the Incas altogether at the Battle of Cajamarca. Diamond explains exactly how Europeans came to be more advanced than American and South American Indians through a number of factors (all very precisely illustrated). It's a fascinating book and one I highly recommend. All of the factors that led to European nations being capable of conquering the world are ones I understand and agree with. However, there appears to be a key component missing and that's leadership. What I think Diamond may have overlooked is how the Arabic world far exceeded the European nations in wealth, splendor, living standards and science 1,000+ years ago. Arabic scholars had charts, graphs and detailed maps of the heavens, as well as proof the world was round, long before Copernicus. But what happened to the Arabic states that they should fall so far behind the western nations? A crisis of leadership, that's what. Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis wrote a fantastic piece for the Atlantic titled The Roots of Muslim Rage. This piece was written in 1990, long before the first WTC attacks and 9/11. In his article, Lewis mentions the reasons for the decline of the Arabic nations, not the least of which is overconfidence by its rulers (as most global superpowers have at one point or another become overconfident), as well as their complacency and fear of new technology. As Arabic states gradually began to lose more and more battles with the west, be they economic, scientific or military battles, their leadership also began to fail. The final nail in the coffin occurred, as Lewis says, in the 1700s when Arabic leaders had grown so tired of invading western armies setting up camp inside their borders, and grown so tired of Europe asserting itself so forcefully upon the world that they regressed. Lewis shows that Arabic leaders consciously made the decision to revert their societies back to the golden ages of 700-years ago, to a time when they were dominant world-powers. They did this in an attempt to recapture the magic of that time and rise against the west. But, as is obvious to most people (and obvious to Lewis in his article), " does not move forward by going backward." What this leads me to, in a very circular way, is to question the role of leadership in Ancient History. The powerful charisma of a select few (see Hitler) have often impacted life on this planet as dramatically as the geographic, technological and sociological reasons Diamond gives for Europe's dominance. Given the way leadership can influence human history, how could Diamond forget to account for it? Even in pre-history, even 6,000-years ago, when people were just beginning to use stone tools and domesticate horses, there had to be some form of leadership. After all, in EVERY human interaction, there is some form of leadership is there not? Unfortunately history is written by those who won, not by those who lost. So we'll never know what kind of leadership influenced the Inca population and whether or not it was a conservative or liberal society (judging by their ritualistic sacrifices I would guess conservative) but that's beyond the point. The point is that we take into account human interactions in a complex world when writing history and history books recognize the power of leadership (whether granted by title through a piece of paper, or by right of birth, or by the divine powers themselves) in every piece of history covering the last 2000-years. So what I want to know is how can Diamond ignore it completely just because he's talking about history a little older than that?

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