Leadership without careerism: is it possible?

Is there a better way of selecting leaders than through self-assertion? Nicholas Gruen on his experience with a Citizen Jury and what it means for trust in the public sector if it promotes a culture of selflessness.

Our world has been optimised to within an inch of its life. Usually from the top down. With the economic, social and organisational prizes accumulating more and more to those at the top, there’s growing anxiety to get on – not to be left behind. Kids going for scholarships are advised to craft a ‘TED talk’ style mission they’re ‘passionate’ about and a CV to match.

Careerism is rife. And that’s bad news for the culture of our institutions and organisations – both public and private – which should function as collective entities first and as vehicles for individual careers second. The more workplaces must cultivate a network of creative collaboration, the more intrinsic motivation in doing the job itself matters, the more careerism is a threat. Even more so for in the public and third sector which can’t easily benchmark their performance against competitors and can’t gauge the value of their output by how much customers pay.

With these things on my mind I recently discovered a simple mechanism that might help resist the cancer of careerism. It’s easily engineered, and yet we’ve rarely had the wit to even consider it. It’s a form of ‘roundabout’ production just like markets are. Let me explain.

In a market, buyer and seller have conflicting interests. This was seen as a problem by pre-modern economic thinkers. The breakthrough in Adam Smith’s thinking in the eighteenth century was to develop the intimations of people like Mandeville and Hutchinson that the alchemy of the market could turn private vice into public virtue. In other words, in the right circumstances – in a well functioning market – the inherent conflict of interest between buyer and seller is a feature not a bug. That’s because it simultaneously faces both buyer and seller with the Spice Girls question: Tell me what you want, what you really really want.

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