Friday, May 4, 2007

On Leadership

I have never considered my self much of a leader. I have not read any significant writing specifically about leadership. Perhaps I should. This post is an effort to think about this fundamental quality of human social structure.

One thing is clear. America is desperately in need of real leadership. We are having a tough time finding politicians who inspire us. People who with unwavering confidence, with charisma, with clarity of speech and purpose get our attention and motivate our action.

The the most skilled politician in recent memory is William Jefferson Clinton. Mr. Clinton could gracefully, persuasively, "sell ice to Eskimos." More accurately, Mr. Clinton was incredibly disarming. However, I would not agree that Mr. Clinton was a great leader. In fact, he was not a leader at all. Mr. Clinton's greatness rests in his ability to read peoples existing motivations, bias, prejudice, and feelings. His ability to anticipate people's reactions gives him the political advantage. He is able to move smoothly along by using an opponent's own momentum. He does not change people's minds, he doesn't really try or care. He perceives the majority opinion, the course of least resistance, and follows it. I find very little in the Clinton presidency which represents true leadership. I do not think Mr. Clinton really changed much of anything. His presidency (almost) demonstrated the fine art of staying out of trouble. His presidency amounts to the requisite Isreali-Palistinean photo-op. Photos, poll numbers, no real progress.

President George W. Bush's term in office has not been driven by anticipating poll numbers, like Clinton's. He has made decisions based on conviction in an attempt to lead. He has tried to change America. He has tried to change the world for the better. He has acted out of principle first, and politics second. However, he has failed to truly lead. He has failed to confront his opponents relentlessly. He has failed to effectively communicate his convictions. Conviction, Communication and Fufillment- all are required of leaders.

There is an old philosophical dispute about whether the "great" people of history really changed society or whether they just symbolized the change; rode the wave. All though there is conflict with serious theologians on this, most of todays conservative thinkers more or less side with the great Ayn Rand on this. Existentialist like Rand say, in short, people change the world, people influence others. French existentialist Jean Paul Sarte said it succinctly:
"The goal of Existentialism is to place the burden of achievement upon the individual." Indeed, this is perhaps the fundamental principle of secular conservatism and capitalism today.

I often muse about political mass movements. How is it that they happen? I find perverse examples like Nazi Germany particularly befuddling. How could so many behave so badly? What caused those spectacular, orderly, million man HEIL HITLER rallies?

The only answer which has thus far occured to me is that people inherently WANT to follow the leader. People resist Sartre's goal of existentialism. They resist it because they do not want to take responsibility for their own success and failure. Personal responsibility is painful. Making decisions and living with the consequences (with the recognition that those consequences are of one's own making) is frequently too much to bear psychologically. Thus, we instinctively seek an "out."

One relatively healthy option is to find an inspiring "leader." Cautious skeptical embrace of leadership can be very effective in furthering a person's aims. When we perceive a leader with the right set of principles we can delegate some of our own decision making and conserve our mental energy. Further, by supporting a leader we bolster those principles which we have chosen to embrace. The classic V-shaped flock of geese flying South provides an analogy. The geese are conserving energy by flying in the lee of the goose ahead, while simultaneously attracting the attension of other geese and inspiring their essential communal Southerly journey.

However, the escape mechanism becomes unhealthy when we "give ourselves over" to a leader. In Jonestown, the Branch-Dividian leader Jim Jones had a flock which had given itself over. The lead goose then, in effect, flew straight into the ground, killing all. Despite the inherent and evident danger of "giving one's self to a leader," many choose to do so with great ardour.

Joining an in-progress movement is somewhat safer and perhaps more common technique. By observing a trend and following it we can still abdicate responsibility for our own actions and their consequences, only now in the company of friends, maybe even a mob. Like the fashion of, say growing sideburns, things catch on. Should "the fashion" turn out terribly destructive (unlikely with sideburns), few will in the end blame themselves. Rationalizing, they will say "everyone was doing it."

Given that people instinctively desire leadership, why are compelling leaders so hard to find? Why are America's politicians so incredibly uninspiring? Why do we end up listening to the deeply intoned vaccuum of John Kerry's mind? To be honest, the answer will have to await a later post as I do not at this time have a sufficient answer.

Despite an currently relevant example, I think I can say what a great leader should be. A great leader should be an individual who can perceive a proper course of action, develop a core of desciples, convince the populace of the necessity of that action, and with resolute and unwavering confidence see the plan, through inevitable adversity (which adversity arises in proportion to the importance of the action) to it's fruition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah,leadership. As rare as an honest politician. Try these notes from Fred on for size