The role of leadership is often left unquestioned as a noble pursuit. Leaders are heroes, heroines, paragons of virtue whom we admire from afar. Even the vicious and corrupt, those leaders who govern by fear and intimidation, they too achieve a pernicious admiration, infamy in the maintenance of their tyrannical claim. They stand above us, statuesque, leaving no choice but to look up to them.

A leader is someone whom others follow, but if everyone’s goal is the same, why not walk in tandem, side by side? Why create an exploitable hierarchy at all? Leadership bestows upon us certain privileges, and in creating that role, we dilute our common goals with aims of obtaining those privileges, abandoning our original pursuit for the sake of immodest greed. If our goals diverge, obtaining followers would require coercion, and leadership would be simple charlatanism; deception, bribery, and extortion becoming our highest virtues. If we are on common ground, leaders are an unnecessary risk. If we differ, they are charming despots, apathetic in their oppression of our autonomy.

The first justification is wisdom. Leaders are knowledgeable, and so are justified in their position. This role is the teacher or the guide who provides us with knowledge that would be difficult to obtain on our own. Yet the goal of the teacher is not to hoard their position of prestige over the student, but to give of themselves until the student becomes their equal. The goal of the guide is that one day the trail may be shared with a peer. The intrinsic hierarchy of intellectual authority is tempered by its altruistic directive toward equality.

The second justification is that of stratagem. Leaders are keepers of the big picture, overseers of the forest while others focus on the trees. However, this is not a position of power; it is a different vantage point. If everyone’s goals are ultimately the same, the overseer serves more as a conductor of an orchestra, guiding the beauty of the process. Others follow because they see their goals fulfilled, not because of any power being exerted over them. If the goals diverge, or the leader ignores the minutia of the trees at the expense of their followers, those followers are well within their rights to adopt or elect new, more conducive, leadership.


In a game that’s mostly pawns, you think they’d have some issue with their expendability. Maybe instead of marching forward against others just like themselves, they ought to turn around and demand change from those behind them sending them to their deaths.

The third justification is the figurehead. This is the leader people rally behind. The leader as symbol. One action or event may have thrust them, even unexpectedly, into the front of the crowd. This is not a position one can seek, since it is most often an accident. They are those who inspire us, never asking for followers because their goal is not actually to lead.

The fourth justification is organization. This is the person who takes the first step. The leader who sees where progress needs to be made, and seeks other like-minded people to share in this goal. This is a leader with initiative. They are not one step in front of everyone else, as the organizer might see that a figurehead ought to be the most visible in achieving their shared goal. The organizer simply sets up the march.

The final justification is change. This leader is someone who makes a difference. The world follows the new path that this leader has laid down. This leader is anybody. To quote the historian and social activist Howard Zinn, “Missing from such histories [of social activism] are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.”

A leader stands above others not because they exist in some power hierarchy over the rest of us, but because they embody one or more of these characteristics. Power within leadership is inherently coercive and corrupting. A leader is a friend who inspires us to be better; a parent who teaches us how to tie our shoe; someone who cleans up the mess, not because they made it, but because it needs to be cleaned. Or a leader can be you, making a tiny difference in the lives around you.