Leaders Need To Be Cassandras


Annabel Beerel
November 16th, 2021

Cassandra, the gifted seer, warned the Trojans that there was an armed force inside the wooden horse they had hauled inside their city walls. The Trojans would not believe her, and so they met their fate at the hand of the wily Greeks.

The god Apollo, who had been spurned by Cassandra, punished her by ensuring that no-one would believe her prophesies. That curse persists as we observe modern day Cassandras being frequently either mocked or ignored.

Leadership expert, Margaret Heffernan, in her book, Willful Blindness (2012), explores the forces at work that make us deny the threats that stare us in the face. Through stories ranging from broken marriages, x-rays given to pregnant mothers knowing that radiation damages prenatal children, the lingering presence of asbestos, the 1987 financial collapse due to derivatives which several people predicted would play a major role in the next financial debacle, and did, the Catholic Church scandal, ENRON, and the BP environmental disaster, Heffernan highlights people’s fierce determination not to see what is right before their eyes if it in any way hints of change, of conflict, or creates cognitive dissonance. She points out that we don’t want to know what challenges our values and deeply held beliefs. We filter out, edit, rationalize, ignore, defer, and become quite blind to truths we do not want to, or cannot bear to hear. Our fragile egos serve as virulent gate keepers.

Useful Delusions: The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain by Shankar Vedantam & Bill Mesler 2021, explores the related phenomenon of self-deception. These authors claim that we all seek beliefs that tell us we have a purpose, and that our lives are okay. We eschew the hard truth, as, according to them, our eyes and brains are not in the truth business but in the functionality business (Vedantam & Mesler, 2021, p. xxi). We are gullible, and once deceived, many of us defend ourselves by denying the reality that we were duped.

The situation of both blindness and self-deception is worsened when it comes to the collective. The cultic nature of groups encourages groupthink, the denial of contradictory realities, and the need to feel invincible. Groups readily rationalize away a reality that does not meet their own.

As discussed in my book, Ethical Leadership and Global Capitalism: A Guide to Good Practice (2020), groups not only share common understandings and outlooks; they also share secrets and defense mechanisms. They learn to see things the same way, and how not to see what they do not want to see. For example, if the group wants to deny the reality of unethical behavior, it will. The group also has the potential to “kill” anyone who breaks the unconscious agreement of deception. Collaboration at all levels is the name of the game and the passport to safety. Think of the collusion at Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Deutsche Bank, and note the fate of whistleblowers.

Can denying reality, as Vedantum & Mesler imply, serve us? Can we avoid the truth, and live both deceived and happy? Well, that depends on whether one wants to live an engaged, self-accountable, and authentic life or not. The truth about the truth is that in the end, it always prevails. Reality does not wait for anyone’s acceptance or approval. And while we can argue about the nuances of what is real – for example, the extent of the danger of Covid that in the US alone has claimed over 700,000 people’s lives – it would be hard to be both sane and to dispute its existence. The same goes for any new reality: we can ignore it, deny it, dilute it, or fight it, yet the sea tide of change always arrives. And the longer we wait to embrace the truth, the less options available and the higher the cost, if not in inconvenience, then to our very existence.

As I belabor in my books and seminars, the prime task of leadership is to identify new realities when they are new, and to mobilize others to embrace the changes that ensue. Exercising leadership thus requires one to be a Cassandra. Cassandras are critical thinkers who are mindful, observant, curious, energetic, and open – open to the inevitability of change and all its ramifications. Their prophesy is not a fantastic tale, but a perspicacious reading of the tea leaves that result from an observant and inquiring mind. Cassandras are not phased by uncertainty, nor do they let their egos get in the way.

Because we tend to dislike new realities – unless they suit us – Cassandra, as often the unwelcome messenger, needs great courage to hold people’s feet to the fire to acknowledge the new reality and to adapt. Unfortunately, far too few people in leadership positions have the nerve to follow through with the adaptive work if the clamor of discomfort is too loud (read A Failure of Nerve (2007), by Edwin H. Friedman). As a result, we lurch from one reactive response of a changing reality to another. And consequently, we end up tackling the symptoms because we do not have time to investigate the new reality’s systemic nature. Each hasty solution trotted out, becomes our next problem. What will we do with the escalating mental health problems, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the devastating scale of corporate corruption (read Fortune, April/May 2021, pages 92-93)?

Maybe 2022 will herald a new reality; one where there will be more brave Cassandras, and where her curse will be lifted. For the sake of the world, and the mounting new realities on the horizon, let us hope so.

Can Humans Rule Themselves?


Democracy Under Threat

Annabel Beerel
October 23, 2021

The question whether democracy is under threat is headline news. A brief sweep of the many troubled spots on the globe would seem to indicate that the tide toward democracy has indeed faltered. If anything, there is a greater move towards autocracy and fascism.

Political scientist, Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man, that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall by claiming that liberal democracy has triumphed, was a perhaps little hasty. While democracy might suffer setbacks from time to time, he insists that it will prevail in the long term. Since we can only talk about now, as in the long term we won’t be here, it appears that now is one of those times of major setback.

After the contentious US election, several surveys reflect that the majority (56% according to CNN), of both republicans and democrats, believe that democracy is under threat, each group for their own reasons. In an already highly polarized country, what will this portend for its increasingly fragile democratic system?

Democracy emerged as a form of government in Athens during the 5th century where it existed for almost 100 years until, in 404 BC, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. Thereafter, for a brief period, it was ruled by the Thirty Tyrants, who were soon driven out, and democracy was restored.

In 5th century Athens, citizenship was a privilege accorded solely to male born Athenians. Women and slaves – of which there were many – had no citizenship rights at all. In this selective democracy, everyone was expected to play some role in the political life of the polis. The election of officials was based on the random drawing of lots and no person could serve in an elected position more than twice. Citizens could exercise freedom of speech, however there was subtle (and not so subtle) pressure to support consensus and collective goals. The ordinary citizen had equal access to political power whether they were rich or poor, educated, or uneducated, and demagoguery flourished.

Despite this highly participatory process, it was not without its critics, of which Plato was one. He believed that democracy relegated governing to the foolhardiness of ordinary citizens who, he claimed, were readily swayed by public opinion rather than knowledge. He claimed that democracy made way for mendacious orators who, fired up with rhetoric, would tell the citizen what he or she wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear.

Democracy, he argued, invariably devolved into the tyranny of the majority comprised of the impoverished, ignorant, uneducated, and undisciplined. In effect democracy, he held, redounds to mob rule.

Within a few generations, after democracy was restored in Athens, and as predicted by Aristotle – another Greek philosopher who had much to say on governance under various regimes – it slowly morphed into an oligarchy; oligarchy being rule by the wealthy focused on their own self-interests.

The idea of democracy as a form of government did not surface in any active manner again until the eve of the French revolution symbolized by the fall of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. Inspired by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the orator Maximilian Robespierre’s impassioned cry for liberté, fraternité et égalité, the constitutional monarchy was overthrown in a bloody coup 1792, and democracy was held up to be the collective goal. A one-party state was created as a transitional dictatorship as a precursor to the creation of a democratic constitution. This was not created without conflict as there was contention around whether there was sufficient protection of individual liberties, along with objections to the idea of a representative democracy. In 1804, Napoleon put an end to the French democratic experiment, when he declared himself emperor.

The 2010 revolutions known as the Arab Spring, were also driven by demands for democracy, free elections, economic freedom, and human rights. These uprisings brought minimal progress. Within a relative short period, autocracy, military rule, corruption, and divisive factions reasserted themselves. While many governments call themselves republics or representative democracies, in effect equality, transparency and citizen empowerment varies.

America lauds itself as the world’s premier model of democracy, yet even it does not meet some of democracy’s basic tenets. As the pandemic highlighted, the human rights of all citizens are in no way protected, and recent laws passed in some states are designed to deny certain citizen groups their electoral rights. Another reality is that the percentage of eligible voters is currently lower than it was in the mid-nineteenth century. And the men of virtue and talent who are tasked with governing on behalf of all with dispassionate regard for the common good, according to one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, are the wealthy, self-interested oligarchs with close ties to Wall Street. As James Miller writes in Can Democracy Work? (2018), democracy in the US is a sham. It is a shared faith rather than an actuality.

Let us return to Plato’s critique: Can humans rule themselves? And is democracy the best form of government?

We might begin with the question as to whether Americans, or citizens of any country for that matter, have a unified understanding of what a (or their) democracy entails, and whether they can they agree on a unifying vision that transcends the demands for liberalism (protection of individual rights), protects minorities, has a legislative due process not subject to political pressures, and an open and fair electoral process which does not suppress certain votes or voters.

We might then query as to whether individuals are readily committed to become educated and informed of societal issues by a press that is not driven by the bottom line, but that can truly report the news with accuracy and transparency. Can the average citizen ignore the misinformation and disinformation propagated by the social media channels, and are they prepared to actively participate in government and not declare all politicians corrupt yet hope in vain they will fix the problems that they do not want to be bothered with? Will people change their priorities and reassign their harried, market-driven day, which always has time for Facebook posts, and become actively involved in governing – their schools, their states, and their nations?

Can, or rather will, the ordinary person in the street be personally mobilized to advance social justice? Or will the current idea that the poor and homeless should be supported, racism should be decried, the minimum wage is a disgrace, and hopefully someone will address all of this with the minimum inconvenience, prevail?

Was Plato perhaps, right? We cannot really be bothered to govern ourselves, as it takes work and personal accountability. Any effort at self-governance – note the financial and energy sectors and now technology, has failed abysmally.

Are we prepared to reconcile our competing claims and find that unifying vision for where we consent to compromise in the interests of overall harmony and wellbeing? Isn’t it perhaps easier to hand the whole matter to someone else, who we can support, or when our interests are not served, rail against? And once we overthrow this regime, the new demagogs will step in and we will cede our power to the next Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, or Trump…until that does not suit us anymore, and some disenfranchised group will rise again and cry for liberty, egality and fraternity.
As the great John Adams warned, “there never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Is that where our democracy is headed?