GOETHE’S FAUST OF LEADERSHIP

HomeThinking (essays), WorksGOETHE’S FAUST OF LEADERSHIP

Tired, insecure, restless. This is how I encounter the supposed leaders and shapers of our society. “It’s been an exhausting year.” That’s how the New Year’s posts read on social media today—posts written by driven people.

Driven by the pursuit of absolute knowledge, busy confirming our existence, we have surrendered to consumerism, which promises us fulfillment in concrete, supposedly self-evident things: as long as our lusts are briefly satisfied, as long as the desire for so-called certainty will facilitate viral dissemination, we fall for the pull of the Maelstrom, which we call “our life.” A diabolical pact.

However, dopamine surges and virality do not cure any underlying problems. At most, they provide sedation for the world we have created, in which a confused and insecure society hides behind headlines, superficiality, and new self-evident facts.

Such an unconscious, demonic arrangement seems to prevent people from feeling the vitality of life. Far too few are perceiving their own perceptions and experiencing their own experiences. We have created a meta-modern world in which binary thinking in absolutes—0 or 1—leads to imprisonment in our own seeming certitudes. Limitless technical possibilities create the Mephistophelian false impression that we can recognize what holds the world together at its core. By accepting this as a promise and a goal, our society has become restless in a Faustian quest for knowledge. But the craving can never be satisfied by an “absolute-knowledge society.” Man finds support in not enlightenment but the pursuit of wisdom. The search for progress and better explanations creates the basis for a society of understanding.

Like Faust, we don’t want to “say to the moment, tarry yet. You are so beautiful.” Consequently, in our world, happiness cannot be achieved, meaning it cannot be found. New demands arise from every realization, which moves us away from the ultimate goal—be it happiness or meaning—instead of bringing us closer. In this world, where man is dissatisfied with himself and his life, it is up to the individual to accept this contradiction. Man can’t make himself truly happy, but “less unhappy” is righteous. Few will find what they’re searching for, but the pursuit is what gives life its meaning. In this new Faustian world, we do not dissolve the pact with the Devil through resilience and overcoming absolute crises. Instead of a world of pretended opinions and supposed answers and irrefutable data and the satisfaction of one’s own lusts, it’s about activation and positive progress.

One path forward is via leadership—leadership in the sense of self-management but also by way of activating the other digitally distracted dopamine junkies of the New World. The fundamental realization that the world itself is not explainable—that it is not about an absolute answer but rather an underlying dynamic in life—is our starting point. The very pursuit of better problems (and corresponding progress) is the basis of a Goethean Faust of Leadership. It is a point of reference and inspiration in a world where man has been lost to consumption and confusion.

How would a leadership Faust adapt to the perceived urgent challenges of our time? Let’s look at three specific issues: ecological collapse, dealing with the creation of digital superintelligence, and organized human life.

The doctrine du jour, with its eco-hysterical outcry, sometimes resembles “the spirit that always denies” and, with its demand for absolute limitation, “the force that always wills evil and always creates good.” Sustainability is the chosen path. What is devilish is man’s inability to embrace it. A plea for reasonable man could only entail the adoption of newfound respect for the natural world, allowing us to avoid the consequences of a possible eco-collapse. “Social business models,” “impact investment,” and “doing the right thing” are called for. And “good” is happening. Yes, we can limit ourselves—at least in the world of Western affluence. Yes, it’s about designing a resource-efficient world of reusability. But how much more potential is there in the Faustian quest to fathom the new, the unknown, by way of actual—positive—progress? Not through limitation and reduction but by unleashing the possibilities of technological development and human growth.

The exponential development of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum technology brings us the democratization of knowledge. However, it also thrusts us toward technological singularity, which in turn could present an existential threat. Here, too, we find that there are no answers . . . yet. It’s about the art of being wrong. The challenge lies in activation, in our ability to ask better questions. Not a know-it-all society but one of everlasting skepticism, congruent optimism, and profound curiosity—traits that will prove vital in creating digital super-intelligence. The problem today is not solving problems or making the impossible possible but understanding what’s at stake.

Even organized human life poses existential challenges to our species in our meta-modern world. Geopolitical conflicts are the order of the day, the demand for a capitalistic “reset,” deceptively defined political models, and the desire for decentralization of all political institutions are in the air—Faust in search of Arcadia! However, there is no adaptable form of functioning socialism that can replace capitalism at present. Marx wasn’t right, and not even the socialists among themselves can agree, let alone the more conservative denizens. An overturn of the financial system—whatever that might mean—and the decentralization of political and/or economic institutions probably won’t happen either, at least not without fatal consequences.

So it is said: “Man errs as long as he strives . . .” I don’t give you the answer—as I don’t have it—but even so, I want to explore the problem as a means to not “win” but create better problems.

What to do when the revolution fails to happen, though? The demonic route of crisis and outcry has been tried time and time again. So has idolizing the absolute role models—the new influencers. How about we change gears? How about we look to new leaders? People who inspire themselves and master self-governance. People who contribute to activation and believe in a new performance culture of progress—one that’s poised to benefit all. The answers aren’t found in (supposed, short-term) solutions, but in (infinite) progress. The striving individual becomes the vulnerable individual—but also the party with potential. Actively shaping oneself—not seeking solidity—is key.

A leadership Faust freely after Goethe isn’t a matter of naive advancement but rather the conviction that only the fundamental activation of a new performance culture can carry us forward in the spirit of collective exploration. Progress isn’t a law of nature, but it is possible through human effort. And so, we face the Maelstrom of life in a neo-ecclesiastical dance on the very boundaries of mind and matter. We dive into the empty spaces between people, where the invisible becomes tangible and what is not becomes something: progress.

The leadership Faust creates a foundation for recurring (positive) progress. With self-confidence, self-leadership, and acceptance of responsibility, we can seek out a trusting environment in which friction arises but points a way toward better problems and breakthrough innovations, allowing us to meet the Mephistophelian temptation with crucial humanity.

This humanity means activation, from which we are able to face our own demons and influence our own lives (positively). This power enables us to influence and improve the circumstances of innocent future generations. And if this year feels even more exhausting than the last, it’s worth comparing to something far worse, the truly diabolical force: complacency and idleness.

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