By Dr. Eric J. Russell, HCI Research Associate
What is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived? -Robert K. Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader
Atop the Roue de Paris, one can become lost in the beauty of the Paris. At 200ft, the famous Ferris wheel affords riders the opportunity to take in an unobstructed view of some of the world’s most notable treasures. From this perch, onlookers can gaze at the grandeur of the Champs-Elysées. The majestic spires and buttresses of the Norte Dame. The awe-inspiring image of the Eiffel Tower. The Roue de Paris stands in the Place de la Concorde in the city’s 8th Arrondissement. As the towering wheel turns, delivering each onlooker an unforgettable image, life below is fast paced and bustling. Heavy traffic of locals and tourists, lovers and families, navigate vendors selling everything from trinkets to macaroons. Individuals walk among them offering selfie-sticks, laser-light toys, and umbrellas for a few Euro. At night it can be a dizzying soul-fulfilling experience.
In the hustle and flow of the Place de la Concorde one can innocently overlook what took place in that exact spot where the Roue de Paris stands. Around 1790, long before a Ferris wheel became a part of the Paris Skyline, stood another marvel of engineering, the guillotine. It was in this very place, at the height of the French Revolution where King Louis XVI was beheaded. Ten months later, Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis’s wife, fell victim to the same fate.
So, you’re probably thinking, what does this have to do with leadership?
Society for the most part champions success, fame and achievement. Wealth and celebrity are celebrated and placed upon pedestals. When earned free of violence, coercion, or fraud, accomplishment deserves celebration as well as the rewards that come with it. For the most part, the common person has little bitterness against those who succeed for it is the hope of those who don’t have much in the present, to have more in the future. The majority of people imagine themselves in a better place down the road. The Pareto Principle is both accepted and understood with most people envisioning themselves being a part of that winning 20%. However, where it goes off the rails, and Louis XVI can attest to this, is when the few seemingly have it all while the masses seem to have none.
King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and many others didn’t find themselves with their heads beneath a blade because they were rich. The France Revolution didn’t take place just because there were nobles with money. It happened because the few who had everything flaunted it and rubbed it in the face of the have-nots. They seemingly forgot to read the room. Moreover, those in power did nothing for the vulnerable and powerless. By the time the whole thing boiled over, all the peasants needed to hear were tales of the Place of Versailles, parties, waste, and to see their children filthy and starving in the streets, to inspire revolt.
Seemingly, this same narrative plays out throughout human history beyond the French Revolution. It can be seen in hundreds of other socio-political uprisings such as the Russian Revolution. It happens when the haves take from and abuse the have-nots, rather than earn, build and achieve on their own. It happens when the few with power forget about the many, or worse, unleash cruelty on the masses who don’t. Eventually someone in the crowd is set afire with the spark of revolution, and one of their friends is inspired to construct an execution machine.
I know this idea seems extreme. However, it’s pertinent to leadership. It’s a lesson to power. Machiavelli warned of this in The Prince, to not cause the common to suffer undue hardship. Simply put, when you find yourself above others you have power over them, and with some, this power can spiral out of control. People can become drunk on power. They begin to demand that the people be held to standards they themselves are not. To understand an end result of overwhelming authoritative leadership, look no further then military occurrences known as “fragging”, where soldiers kill their superior officer. Position, power, rank, connection, mean nothing when one’s people decide they’ve had enough. And when the people are used, abused, and forgotten about, systemic problems for leaders will arise.
It is here where a little humility can go a long way. As noted before, people champion winners; they support success. However, when success and power come at the price of others humanity, the most vulnerable suffer. In addition, when those with the most are tone-deaf to the suffering of the many, anger starts to boil over. Think “let them eat cake”. King Louis XVI had an opportunity to avoid such a fate, for it wasn’t his wealth that caused a blade to cut his throat, nor was it seeing others as less then, but rather, not seeing them at all. Humility removes the blinders that block out the plight of the least privileged in society; moreover, it allows for small - yet significant - changes to be made so that the least among us can be served and not be further deprived.