Replicating leadership

As I write, Roy Batty is dying. The humanoid anti-hero of the film Bladerunner sits facing his adversary, the assassin known as Decker, and utters one of the most compelling monologues in movie history. During his brief existence, Roy is on a quest to escape his destiny – to be more than a ‘replicant’ of humanity – and it is only when faced with death that he realises what it truly means to be alive.

Bladerunner is set in November 2019: a dystopian vision of (what is now) the present day. The ‘replicants’ look like us, they behave like us, but the movie questions whether they really are like us.

Ever since I became a teacher, I observed those in leadership positions in the schools in which I worked. I hoped to replicate those I admired; to figure out the secrets of their success. I wanted to be where they were and believed that when I got there, I would need to emulate their behaviour.

In education, and in other walks of life, we are pre-occupied with knowing what a great leader is and does. The literature on leadership describes the characteristics, traits and operating principles upon which success is built. By describing what we see we hope to capture the essence of leadership, like a moth in a jar.

We look for our leadership role models where we find success, then attribute this success to them. We correlate the features of the leader with the fact of achievement, drawing a straight line between the two. In the absence of evidence of causation, we ask the leaders to what do they attribute their success? They tell us tales of their endeavours; of wars won. The narrative of leadership is written – this is the story of leadership greatness. Tell it to your children.

Yet leadership cannot be replicated. When we move from describing to prescribing based on nothing more than flimsy observations, rhetoric and assumptions, we create leadership clones, devoid of humanity.

Leaders are forged by their experiences, not the other way around. What we observe is tainted by survivorship-bias. We assume a leader’s character is the reason for their success, when it is more often the result of it. High levels of confidence are not a defining feature of great leaders; over-confidence is merely the residue of making it this far. Those that have fallen along the way also started with confidence but were blessed with less luck. Great leaders can be broken by their experiences; how often do we recognise this bleak fact?

Our sense of identity as a leader is shaped by a multitude of events. Our leadership is personal to us: it is our memories, hopes and values. We cannot bottle it for sale.

In his final moments, Roy Blatty tells of attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. His memories appear vivid to him, yet he is merely a ‘replicant’, a literal carbon-copy. The tragedy of the moment is that as he ‘retires’ from the world, what Roy has experienced will be lost – ‘like tears in rain.’

Bladerunner’s replicants achieve humanity not because they emulate their creators, but because they have lived their own lives. Our leadership resides within us, not in replicating others.

 

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