Networked populism: the defining leadership style of our era

By Martin Vogel

New model leaders?
New model leaders?

If, as I wondered in my earlier post, eco-leader is not the defining leadership discourse of our age, then what is?

If you look at the actually existing leadership narratives that are currently to the fore, you might label the dominant discourse networked-populist rather than eco-leader.

Trump and Farage are its most eloquent symbols. Both worked outside established structures, with seemingly outlandish agendas which, against the odds, they brought to fruition using networks of influence. (Jeremy Corbyn shows similar characteristics – though, in his case, the mastery of networks that brought him to prominence seemed to be his backers’ rather than his own.)

Trump’s promotion of fascist propaganda shows a willingness to traffic lies and to align with extremists, both of which are practices that are beyond the pale of previous norms of democratic politics. Farage is not above inciting mob violence if things don’t go his way. It would be a mistake to view the traducing of long understood boundaries of legitimacy as a passing aberration. As Chris Grey has noted, there’s a conscious effort under way to shift the ground on which politics is conducted:

“The hardcore Brexiters of both the political Right and Left think of themselves – correctly, in my view – as enacting a revolution, in pursuit of which they are not just willing to risk economic disaster but are actually undermining liberal political discourse in its broadest sense. The sinister language of traitors, sabotage and enemies of the people is not the last desperate throw of the dice as Brexit goes wrong; it is the beginning of what they want to be the normal terrain of politics. Similarly, the re-writing of history and of facts is not just a tactical gambit, it is part and parcel of their desired form of politics as decoupled from evidence and rationality.”

Theresa May is a follower more than a practitioner of networked-populist leadership. Her government is condemned to cast aside decades of evidence-based policy-making as it plays the custodian of a revolution the complexities of which it scarcely understands. As the commentator, Nick Cohen, observes:

“British democracy has had many low moments. But the sight of Theresa May and the majority of MPs forcing through a vast change they do not believe is in the national interest must surely be the lowest.”

Denial of inconvenient evidence and transgressing of normal standards of legitimacy are evident also in the corporate world. Travis Kalanick, the deposed CEO of Uber, comes most easily to mind as exemplifying the networked-populist style in business. He built a firm that affects an insurgent’s distain for rules and can weaponise its customer base by turning them into activists for its revolution. While his successor, Dara Khosrowshahi, is attempting to adopt a more eco-leader approach, he’s discovering that the rogue culture of Uber – characterised by cover-ups of data breaches and of crimes committed by drivers – is deeply rooted and instinctive. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg combines optimistic narratives about his company’s impact on the world with denial of the disbenefits (but shows flexibility to change course when such denial becomes unsustainable).

All of this leaves me wondering how this discourse will influence the broader leadership culture in society. Soon after the US election, I noticed thoughtful leaders reflecting on what they could pick up from the Trump playbook. The constructive lesson they drew was that Trump’s positivity – “Everything’s going to be beautiful,” – answered a craving for reassurance. The less constructive lesson was that leaders can get quite far by fronting out reassurance that is founded on brazenly flimsy grounds. It seems likely that such impetus as there has been towards more ethical business is likely to be weakened in a climate where political leadership is either cynical or incompetent. Businesses seem prone to losing their bearings, as social media are transformed from a platform of accountability to a conduit for organising the rage that is at large. Paperchase reversed course when only a few hundred people tweeted their alarm about a promotion it undertook in collaboration with the Daily Mail. Whatever you think about its choice of media partner, the fact that the company switched strategy so quickly suggests significant insecurity about its relationship with its customers.

And what happens to followership in the discourse of networked-populism? There’s a risk that we become inured to the excesses and transgressions as they become the norm. As the past year has progressed, I’ve found it necessary to pass by the too frequent opportunities to become outraged – if only for the sake of my sanity. But how to do this while maintaining an appropriate sense of discomfort with that which is beyond the pale? The answer lies in cultivating a kind of grounded opposition, that refuses to normalise the outlandish but does not get burned out in emotionally draining anger. Before long, Havel’s concept of living in truth could seem horribly relevant to our time.