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It’s time to stop worshipping tech leaders

Posted by / November 16, 2018

Max Weber, one of the founders of the field of sociology, was interested in how certain people gain authority. There were three types of authority, according to Weber. The first two are pretty straightforward: legal authority (think a Supreme Court Justice) and traditional authority (think a village elder). The third is a bit more interesting: charismatic authority. He defines charisma as:

[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader … How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.

This is the authority of the tech leaders. Think about that quintessential tech guru, Steve Jobs. Even after his deaths, articles come out praising his leadership skills, his visionary forward-thinking, and his business acumen. He’s worshipped like a folk god or a saint––and if you think I’m exaggerating, then you should know his belongings are being auctioned off like capitalist relics. Articles about him open with biblical verses. His deeds are chronicled in almost hagiographic reverence. But here’s the thing––he was darn close to sociopathic.

Many tech followers don’t want to see that side of their leaders, though. They’re too blinded by the leader’s charisma. I’ve continually written about Elon Musk’s less-than-stellar qualities, and his quasi-religious vision for Tesla, Space X, and whatever other Tony Stark scheme he’s got cooking. Others are pointing out that Facebook’s leadership is toxic and engages in incredibly shady PR tactics, and Google employees recently walked out after it was revealed that the company protected executives accused with harassing women. But despite this, the majority of articles written about tech leaders are sycophantic, blithering nonsense.

Max Weber helps us understand why that is. Scholar Eileen Barker has applied Weber’s concept of charismatic authority to new religious movements. In her analysis, charismatic authority is particularly powerful––and capricious––because it is not bound by tradition, law, or bureaucracy as the other types of authority are. Charismatic leaders, by virtue of their own mysterious authority-granting magical charisma, get to set the rules that everyone else plays be.

If Barker is right, then in the end these CEOs and tech demagogues are doomed to fail. As is the case with all charismatic leaders, they will eventually be overthrown by more solidly-grounded legal authorities.

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