Mention Michel Foucault and most people think of his work on madness and prisons. But there is much more to Foucault. Foucault was one of the most influential and controversial scholars of the post-World War II period. He addresses the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. And power and knowledge are essential components of leadership, and so we must seek out what Foucault can illuminate for us about power and leadership. 

In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison [1975] Foucault introduces us to Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a panopticon. Bentham [1748 – 1832] was an English philosopher and political radical. He was interested in moral philosophy and was an early advocate of the principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based on their consequences. [Choosing to do something based on the value of the outcome] Bentham invented a prison system called the Panopticon. The panopticon concept has become a symbol for social control mechanisms that wield control, authority and discipline in the modern western world.  

Bentham wanted to design a prison for the maximum number of prisoners and the minimum number of warders. His design was as follows. in the centre was a tall central tower from where the warders kept watch. Surrounding this was a circle of prison cells, several storeys high but only one cell deep. Each cell had an outside window for letting in light, and an inner window through which the warders could observe their charges. The inner side of each cell had bars over it and was entirely exposed to the tower. The warders could see the inside of every cell at any time, and the prisoners are always vulnerable and visible.

The nature of the structure was such that the prisoners were aware of the presence of the warders at all times, even though they never knew exactly if and when they were being observed. Foucault draws our attention to the fact that the prisoners adjusted their behaviour to be consistent with the assumption that someone was watching each of them all the time. Control of the prisoners thus moved from external coercion by the warders, to an inner self-regulation. The prisoners behaved as if the warders were constantly watching them. The prisoners took it upon themselves to adjust their behaviour following the warders’ expectations, whether the warders were observing them or not. The prisoners disciplined themselves simply because someone might be watching.

Interestingly, the British parliament granted a sum of money in 1813 to build the first-ever panopticon prison. This panopticon in New Delhi, India, was completed in 1817 and is still functioning as a prison to this day.

How do we use this understanding of self-maintained acceptance of external authority for expanding our understanding of authentic leadership?

Take for example a person who is reading the astrological personality description of their birth month. In the description, they see some characteristics which accord with their understanding of themselves. They say, oh I must be a Cancer or a Leo, and they look for confirmation of this and conclude that they are indeed a Cancer or a Leo. They adjust their behaviour and outlook to conform with what the astrological description has provided them. They ignore other characteristics typified in other astrological signs. They have allowed themselves to be defined by the astrological description of their birth sign. But the astrological description is a fiction, it has no basis in fact. They have surrendered their own understanding and conceptualisation of themselves to an unseen, untested external authority and are comfortable in continuing to act in congruence with that description. It becomes a self-confirming existence. 

The prisoners in the panopticon behave as if they are under constant surveillance. And hence a person who identifies as Scorpio will behave in accordance with their astrological description without any coercion. They have handed over the characteristics of their personalities to the “warder in the tower.” Other examples of submitting to “the warder in the tower” are enneagram analyses, intelligence tests and Myers-Briggs types. There are many other social mechanisms designed to put unique individuals into a limited number of generic categories, arbitrarily decided by an unverified and unaccountable authority. 

When we give over control of our uniqueness to the “warder in the tower,” we cease to be exceptional, instead, we conform to whatever norm is imposed. The norm becomes how we think of ourselves. We say: That’s not like me. We give up challenges and opportunities because they don’t align with what we believe has been told to us by the “warder in the tower.” 

The panopticon is a symbol of impersonal social control that extends into everyday life. Power is visible because of the omnipresence of the warder in the tower and unverifiable because the prisoner can’t know when she or he is being watched. It does not matter who is the warder in the tower, or even whether it is occupied, because power belongs to no one; it functions automatically and is constantly present through the perception of the constant gaze of the warder in the tower. 

Once we are aware of the panopticon we can empower ourselves; we can decide which panopticon cells we wish to occupy. Or we may wish to inhabit no cells.  Once we are conditioned to see the invisible social control of the “warder in the tower,” the better able we are to be authentic and not a facsimile of what we think the “warder in the tower” requires of us.

The mechanisms of social control are wide and deep. It is up to us to choose what sort of prison we wish to reside in, and to which “warder in the tower” we will be subservient.

Truly authentic leaders have a well-developed understanding of who they are. They know their strengths, their weaknesses, and the limitations of their abilities. They don’t need to know pre-defined stereotyped descriptions of themselves and others. They are genuine, self-aware, and transparent and treat each member of their teams as unique individuals and not as inhabitants of a box.

Once you are aware of the panopticon effect, your eyes are open to the subtle social control that herds us towards mediocrity. It is knowledge about how power plays out in society. It is empowering to see the invisible intrusion of the “warder in the tower” and to consciously decide whether to conform or not. It is a difficult path, but exceptional people have never had it easy. Start today and flout the unwanted control of the “warder in the tower.” 

Further reading:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michel-Foucault/Foucaults-ideas 

https://www.britannica.com/technology/panopticon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

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