Leadership: Creation, Destruction, Creative Destruction, and Destructive Creation

What is “leadership”? What is “leader effectiveness”? What is a “social entrepreneur”? More importantly, by what mode does a “social entrepreneur” operate, and what exactly does “leading” mean here? “Leading” where? “Leading,” why? Are initiative, innovation, leadership (and, for that matter, excellence, foresight, progress, engineering, advancement, steering, and guidance) values in and of themselves? Why are they, and how do they come to be shrouded in veils of glory – or, at best, quite acquiescence (accompanied by the nagging feeling of being inadequate)?

Where do all these concepts come from? What are the hidden meanings and untold origins of invoking “entrepreneurial foresight” and “leadership excellence”?

The Austrian economist, political scientist, and sociologist Joseph Schumpeter had a few things to say about progress. Progress, he maintained, is certainly a question of creation. He also argued that “entrepreneurs,” that is, exceptional individuals with a specific kind of brilliance, audacity, and foresight would take it on themselves to steer industrial society towards the path to greater profit – certainly, and why not? – but also greater standards of living, technological means, and comfort for all. And since there are more than one of these individuals at any given time, their competition would quickly weed out the weak, and pave the way for even more progress, even better leadership, an even brighter future. Creation, competition, leadership: path to progress.

Perhaps it is time to add a footnote to this most American of all tales. Competition is not a zero-sum game: certainly, but there are losers nevertheless. Progress is not a zero-sum game: certainly, but there are those left behind nevertheless. Progress towards what, and for whom?` Creation, this most human and most excellent of all capabilities of the brain, is also replacement of old alternatives, that is, destruction. Competition is ruthless, progress is blind to suffering, leadership is as destructive as it is constructive.

Creative destruction, then: creation means destruction, destruction means creation. Creating a new machine means increasing comfort and destroying employment. Creating scientific progress means increasing the sum total of possibilities and the devaluation of works-in-progress, careers, lives. Creating a social network means increasing the ability to share world-wide and the increase in net work.

Leadership must realize this fundamental truth: progress is blind to its social outcomes. The important part of a new invention, a better technique, and a more efficient standardization is not its scientific or technological implementation. The important part is that its social consequences are not capable of being subsumed under the concept of ‘implementation.’ They have to be assessed differently. The invention of the computerized industrial assembly line – perhaps the last great invention of the twentieth century – is not simply the invention of a tool that makes everyone better off. There are losses here: unemployed workers, overburdened managers, families without home or hearth (or health insurance).

In other words: was the inventor of the computerized industrial assembly line a great innovator, an entrepreneur, a leader? Certainly. I am not arguing against scientific and technological progress. (I do write this on a laptop, after all.) What I argue here is that “leadership,” “innovation,” and “excellence” are used all too frequently to cover up the social and (ultimately, perhaps) human cost of a creation that is destruction.

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