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Will the Eurozone leaders do what cold analysis tells them is right? Or will they dodge and fudge as they try to navigate the contradictions of popular and elite opinion? What kind of leadership – if any – will they exercise? Is real leadership even possible these days?

It is not only the current financial crisis and the environment of political coalitions which creates tensions in traditional processes of political decision-making. The rapid development of modern communications changed all that long ago. In a digitally networked society, where the Internet allows everyone to share information and express reaction instantly, and at no cost,­ it is inevitable that the nature of leadership must change. It cannot be the same as in a time when media was slow, expensive and centralized. Leaders are now required to develop a more publicly collaborative approach.

I predict a long decline in political leadership of that individualistic type which we have been accustomed to and which many still thirst after. There are three drivers for this change; the first has already been well observed: an ever greater degree of public scrutiny. There used to large "hidden space" in politics where the guild of politicians could pursue their activities in obscurity. The fact that media could only afford limited attention to the process meant that there was plenty which could be arranged by "the usual channels". A great deal of leadership used to be exercised without anybody noticing. It must now be done mainly in the open.


Second, there is now far greater potential for public participation in decisions; the Internet allows more extensive and deeper consultation, and at very low cost; further, the results of that consultation can be readily shared and processed. If leaders do not ask people their views, or ask them and ignore them, the electorate will become increasingly contemptuous.

The third and most important driver of change is the new dynamic of volatile consensus created when modern digital communications plug in to our ancient neural systems. To understand this effect of the new media on the old social brain, and what it means for leadership, we must turn to insights from neuro-psychology.

The brain works principally by imitation, not by innovation; copying each other is hard-wired into the system. The "wires" here are the neuro-transmitters, the chemicals that fire to communicate between cells. And a highly important neuro-transmitter is dopamine, which has the function of providing reward or punishment. A dopamine squirt makes us feel good, and reduction in dopamine makes us feel bad.

Experiments show that when we change our opinion from a minority view to a majority view, we are rewarded by our neuro-transmitters. In one of these experiments, a group of women were asked to rate the attractiveness of other women. They were then shown the aggregated ratings. They were then given the opportunity to change their own ratings if they wanted. The whole time they were connected to sensors, which showed that changing one’s non-conforming rating to the aggregated scores resulted in their own brains rewarding them with a dopamine squirt.

This neural system is also the one used to signal correct or incorrect predictions about the workings of the external world – every second of our waking lives – and thus is the mechanism by which we build our model of reality; my conclusion is that alignment of minds rather than analysis of facts is the fundamental principle of human thought.

Being aligned with others (the two main markers being majority public opinion and salient opinion within one’s own peer group) feels better in our brains than just being "right". In fact, we really have no mental mechanism for deciding that we are right other than some sense of the alignment of our reality to the reality of others.

This unavoidable group-think doesn’t necessarily make us stupid. We’re all pretty bad at multi-factoral analysis, but we’re very good at crowd-sourcing. Many scientists believe that this principle is actually what makes us smart: we are the most advanced species on the planet precisely because we learn from each other by the efficiency of imitation, and thus generalize the useful learnings of individuals across the whole of society.

Of course it’s always been hard for a democratic leader to oppose the views of the majority, merely from the point of view of the electoral calculus; but we now know from neuro-science that it actually physically hurts to take a contrary view. So imagine the crisis inside your head if the majority of the people you represent oppose your plan, ­and when that opposition is highly visible to everybody. That, I think, is the big transformation that happens with Facebook and Google and Twitter, and indeed with opinion polls: everybody now knows everybody else’s thoughts. It leads to the continuous rapid formation of visible trends.

This creates a much more powerful and volatile dynamic. If you are a leader, neurally hard-wired as all human beings are to thinking via the very process of alignment with others; and you now know their opinion about everything, all of the time; you’ll find traditional leadership highly constrained. Not just because it requires greater courage, but because it’s much harder to make an independent sense of things.

I’m not suggesting there are no opportunities for leadership today; only that the conditions have made it more complex and difficult. It is therefore no wonder that political discussion now focuses almost entirely on tactics, and usually electoral tactics at that. This may just be a stage in our adaptation, and shouldn't necessarily be regarded as a failing. Although it opens us up to dangerous short-termism, it also creates new potential for an enriched democracy. Leadership in the future may be more about the ability to conduct a mature inclusive process than about giving big visionary speeches.

In this space over the coming weeks I intend to explore the new possibilities for leadership in the digitally networked society. I suspect the sight of our leaders squirming between public opinion, peer opinion, and expert analysis will give us plenty of material and time for study.

18 comments for: Stephan Shakespeare: Three reasons why political leadership is becoming less visionary and more inclusive

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