Political scientist Dr. Karen Zivi is assistant professor at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Dr. Michael Moody is a sociologist, a consultant to nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and the co-author of Understanding Philanthropy (2008). â€¨
If there were a TV show called The Leader, what would the main character be like? A new NBC series that aired this summer, The Philanthropist, offers a telling answer to this sort of question. Teddy Rist is a playboy billionaire who runs a successful multinational corporation and maintains a party lifestyle that puts him on gossip-magazine covers. He is, however, haunted by the death of his young son, and it's this grief that fuels his globe-trotting generosity. The show chronicles, in often touching and always action-packed ways, Rist's unlikely transformation from mere celebrity into The Philanthropist.
At first glance, Rist fits a fairly common stereotype of a philanthropist. He is a rich, white, Western man who uses his money to fund his ideas about how the world should be improved. But Rist's approach to giving is more Indiana Jones than John D. Rockefeller. He is always singularly focused on one unambiguous, indisputably noble goal in a black-and-white world of pure good versus pure bad. Fixing a problem, redressing an injustice, helping someone in need are all simply matters of summoning the courage to do the obviously right thing. Rist jumps in personally, gets things done by whatever means necessary, and gets out. And along the way he usually breaks laws, cuts corners and angers potential future allies.
Most of all, Rist is a lone wolf. He is most often on his own when doing his good works, save for his long-suffering bodyguard and the occasional friend or dutiful minion. He conceives his plan on his own and is usually the only one who thinks it will work. He barrels into his risky schemes with a passion born of intensely personal motives, and the success of his missions is measured in individual terms. It comes in an expression of gratitude from a single aid worker, a smile from a single child or the temporary satisfaction of this single dedicated philanthropist.
Though The Philanthropist is only a TV show, a pop-cultural depiction of a complex identity and process, it reveals some widespread assumptions, and misperceptions, about what a "philanthropist" is, and what a philanthropist does as a "leader." In reality, neither philanthropy nor leadership is so clear-cut, nor so dependent on a lone individual.
As research in philanthropic and leadership studies shows, both involve complicated actions in a messy, gray-area world of competing, often controversial priorities. Righting wrongs usually requires careful analysis of different solutions and often involves a debate over priorities — or even a debate over what is "right" and "wrong," and for whom. Philanthropy and leadership are also processes. They almost always involve long-term commitments and engagements, not quick fixes with gratifying happy endings achieved in short order.
Most of all, philanthropy and leadership are collective enterprises. They are only accomplished through the work of many, even if led by a charismatic figure. They require tactful navigation of social networks and relationships, and the building of partnerships. And these trusted partners are more than mere roadblocks to blast through. Yes, partners might be "followers," but they might also be the local residents in a village that needs clean water, or staff at a women's shelter who know best what works to help clients. Getting things done, especially big things like helping people in desperate need, requires more than a brave lone wolf bending people to his will. It requires listening to the ideas of others and engaging the effort of others. And while philanthropists or leaders might have intensely personal motives, they also need to be sensitive to why others want to act.
It is on this last front that The Philanthropist may prove most promising for getting beyond the surface misconceptions. Look closer: Rist cannot and does not ever make change alone. Without his partner overseeing the business and his bodyguard ensuring his safety, Rist would fail. And Rist's successes would be fleeting without the local people he meets in each episode, who will continue doing the work on the ground where Rist only trods temporarily.
When thinking about what makes a good philanthropist or a good leader, research tells us that we need to move beyond the myth of the brave, lone-wolf hero. We need to recognize that it is not simply a deficiency in a leader's charisma, courage or commitment to an obvious goal that keeps us from solving problems, avoiding failure or improving society at home or abroad. It is a far more complicated process than that. Change takes a long time. And it involves more than just one of us.