False Gods

Tobias Mayer
4 min readDec 15, 2015
image from newlife.org

“They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”Exodus 32:8

Leadership is a word much loved in business culture these days—and perhaps in the nonprofit world too. We have servant leaders, thought leaders, fearless leaders, open leaders, and tribal leaders, to name but a few. We have leadership rules, leadership laws, leadership principles, and leadership lessons. Everyone wants to either be a leader, or find one to follow.

This is another example of the quick-fix culture in which we live. We seek people to tell us what to do, or how to think. We seek formulas, processes, steps, procedures, anything to make work life easier, and then, inevitably, to have something — or someone — to blame when things don’t work out. One body’s process is thrown out in favour of another’s, the next “5 Ways to…” or “8 Laws of…” book is touted, and a new bandwagon is launched. In all of this striving for The New Way we overlook individual responsibility. We forget about good citizenship.

The concept of citizen is elegant and simple. Maintaining a balance between rights and responsibilities the good citizen gives and receives in equal proportion. No one citizen is more or less important than any other, and each offers what she can, while reaping the rewards of the citizenship as a whole. The good citizen is present in body and spirit for her neighbors, and for her community; and she contributes in time and taxes to the maintenance and improvement of her city. A city is built by its citizens, and the more each citizen is involved in the process the more each will come to love her city, and thus to care for its infrastructure, its culture, and its inhabitants.

Mapping this to the world of work—paid or voluntary—we can see the organization as the city, the department as the neighbourhood, and the team as the personal community. Just as we have friends in different parts of a city, we may have teammates in different departments throughout the organization — and we find our own ways to maintain and nurture those relationships. The expectations of the worker in the corporation should be the same as the expectations for a citizen: that she will be responsible for the well-being of self and others, that she will take an interest in community and politics, and that she will raise her voice at injustice. This is leadership.

As regards the Biblical quote at the start of this piece, I am not enthralled by the idea of a commanding God, so I read the commandments as a manifesto (albeit a somewhat crude one) for good citizenship. It’s basic stuff: don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill; act with honor; and don’t make graven images. It’s this last part (actually, commandments 1 and 2) that’s interesting here, and is the subject of the passage from Exodus, above. It seems not to fit my idea of a manifesto for good citizenship, but I think perhaps it does.

Disregarding the concept of an all-powerful, invisible deity, we can interpret the first two commandments as advice to not look outside of self for something to fix us, something to idolize. Just as the ancients would adopt, and then cast aside, one god after another, as each proved to be inadequate for their needs, so we leap from thought-leader to thought-leader, or process to process for the same reasons. After several thousand years of this behavior, it may be time for a retrospective.

Each of us has the capacity to show up for life in a holistic way, to be present, to listen and to learn. Much of this is crushed out of us in the school system — but that’s too vast a topic to tackle here. The point is, we have become lazy. Our search for the perfect leader is a sign of that laziness. It is a turning away from seeking our own truth, and living our lives each to her own potential.

Rather than peering outward for the answers, maybe we can spend a little time looking inward. If we seek to be good citizens, rather than to have good leaders maybe the environment in which we work will begin to shift.

An earlier draft of this essay appeared on the Agile Anarchy blog, September 2012.