Orwell’s Animal Farm was written as a political critique of events leading to the 1917 Russian revolution and the Stalinist regime that followed. After receiving a revolutionary vision of a farm run by animals without human oversight, the animals stage a coup and run off Mr. Jones to establish what would be know from that point forward as “Animal Farm.”
The rallying cry of “four legs good, two legs bad” summarizes the animals’ code and reinforces their shared goal of independence from human rule. That is, until it becomes more expedient for Animal Farm’s self-proclaimed ruler Napoleon and his band of fellow pigs to begin cooperating with humans. Napoleon and the other pigs begin wearing clothes, living in the farmhouse, and walking on two legs. Soon, Napoleon and his pigs manipulate the other animals changing the rallying cry from “four legs good, two legs bad” to “four legs good, two legs better.”
Every organization and every leader has the potential to engage in this sort of manipulative spin. While it is simple to look to the PR machines that big companies have at their disposal, many of the more effective campaigns in this age of social media are implemented by those who are (1) willing to promote their perspective on matters as the truth and (2) capable of rallying grass roots efforts to their cause.
Leadership in an age of social media is not simply coded into the hierarchy of an organization…it is dispersed among the masses available to any who desire to take up the mantle of leadership…but lacking in any real accountability. Whereas the “power of the pen” has always been a recognized and vital part of critiquing and challenging organizations and systems, that power formerly required time and effort to exercise. Now, anyone can become a self-proclaimed journalist without the professional constraints associated with organizational life…there are no editors in cyberspace.
The point is that leadership is no longer exercised solely within organizations (not has it ever been), but in looser, more diffuse arrangements organized around a set of shared experiences, affinity for a particular political, philosophical, or theological view, or animosity toward another group.
These groups need not understand the plight of the other animals on the farm…they need not recognize that their preferences and perspectives don’t represent the whole story. From their vantage point, “four legs good, two legs better.” Without accountability, perspective, and limits this new breed of leader can go unchecked by anything but their own conscience (if they have one) and the ever-changing tides of those who follow them.
Leaders of all sorts must take care to ensure they are making the best decisions possible for those they lead. Mature leaders don’t always succeed. They aren’t immune to mistakes or from hurting others. They don’t always go in the right direction.
Mature leaders do, however, seek out and embrace the controls and constraints that put checks on their leadership. This practice is particularly important in an age in which it has become easier to operate without true accountability, to build affinity groups that rally behind a single perspective, and to expand the boundaries of one’s own ethics as far as is necessary to get the job done. Leaders do not need accountability, perspective, or limits to lead, but mature leaders will not lead without them.