Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Long Live the King

After spending weeks reading theories of leadership, the conclusion is inescapable:  we don’t really have a good, persuasive, comprehensive theory of leadership.  Now that is not a terribly inspiring conclusion, but perhaps we were just looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps Leadership is not something best defined in theory.  Perhaps leadership is defined by practice.  And so, we turn to history.

First up, the First History on Leadership, the origin not only of something recognizable as a history book, but the first historical textbook on leadership.  Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.

A note on editions:  if you want to read this book, there is no contest about which version to read.  The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler, is really the only choice.  An amazingly edited volume.  The maps alone make it worth the price—instead of one or two maps at the outset, there are maps on every single page in which the action changes venue; you never have to flip a page to get a sense of where you are in the world at the present moment.  Who knew that a surfeit of maps could make a book so enjoyable?  The footnotes are also amazing.  The side notes indicating what is going on in every paragraph are invaluable for finding things again.  The typeset is incredible.  I so want to say that I am totally in love with The Landmark Thucydides, but I am afraid that if I said that I would be committing biblioadultery—having given my heart to the Library of America, I am not sure I can be unfaithful to my other love.  But, if I was the adulterous type, The Landmark Thucydides would be my new bibliomistress.  But, please don’t tell the Library of America—I am not sure how jealous she is.

The beauty of the volume aside (sigh, such beauty), the book itself is fantastic.  An aside (shocking I know); I first read The Peloponnesian War when I was interviewing for a job at Mount Holyoke.  I even talked about the book during my interview with the Dean of Faculty here.  (And I got a job offer.  Coincidence?)  I enjoyed the book then, but without a doubt, after 20 years of extra reading, I enjoyed the book even more this time around.

As a manual of leadership it raises an incredibly provocative question.  Thucydides is telling the story of the Death of Athenian Democracy.  The cause of Death:  Suicide.  Thucydides places great emphasis on the speeches given by assorted figures.  At the outset we get Pericles and the marvelous Funeral Oration extolling the virtues of Athenian democracy.  Over time, the speechmakers devolve more and more into demagoguery.  One way to read this book:  democracy generates leaders who make the best speeches.  But, the ability to make a great speech is not the same as the ability to be a wise and good leader.  So, what happens when the best speechmakers are unwise or downright self-serving?  Well, you end up with pointless wars which hollow out and eventually destroy the country. 

The application is pretty immediate, and hard to dispute.  In modern America, Rock Stars win.  Think about it; when was the last presidential election which was not won by the person with greater Star Power?  Maybe Nixon, but it may actually be Hoover or Coolidge or Harding.  At a minimum, in the entire time I have been politically aware (since I was 10 and Carter beat Ford), the candidate who was more like a Rock Star won.    (Even the totally uncharismatic George Bush Sr fits that rule—he drew Dukakis as an opponent.)  But, do Rock Stars make great presidents?  Sometimes.  (Reagan!).  Sometimes not (Hmmm…everyone else). 

That leads to the fascinating dilemma.  Suppose that by having a democratic government, you are doomed to end up with poor leaders who have nothing other than fine oratory skills.  Does that make democracy bad? 

I am more ambivalent about this matter than I would like to be.  I have been a closet monarchist since the Clinton years (hmmm…now that I have written that, I guess I am not longer a closet monarchist.  (Hey, look! I came out of the closet!))  During the Impeachment hearings, I realized that one virtue of monarchy is that you don’t have to lament the sad state of the public when you see bad leaders.  If a king is a bad king, that’s just the fault of heredity.  If an elected president is a bad President, then that is the fault of the electorate.  Somehow, blaming a bad gene pool is more comforting than blaming a few hundred million people for being idiotic.  Hence my monarchist tendencies. 

Then again, if I could really switch the country over to a monarchy, I am not sure I would.  One of the virtues of being a college professor is that you can have opinions and not have to worry that anyone is ever actually listening to you and might do what you suggest.

In the end: the lesson from Thucydides for leadership:  Leadership is giving a Great Speech.  If you want to be a leader, learn the art of rhetoric.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Child of God

Shortly after finishing reading Stephen Crane’s journey in New York, I decided to reread Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. As I have surely noted in this space before, McCarthy is my leading candidate for Great Books author of the current age.  (My grandchildren will find out if I am right.)  I hadn’t read this volume for several years, and for reasons unexplained, I thought I would enjoy rereading it now.  I did.

Serendipity is a curious beast.  Child of God is about a social outcast, a homeless guy who is loved by nobody, has no friends, no means of support, and no social capital.  The novel opens when Lester (our protagonist) has his homestead sold after being taken by the county, presumably because friendless, jobless misfits have little ability to pay property taxes.  Lester then wanders into the hills to live, with no means of support and few possessions of any type.  Throughout the novel, he interacts with others, but never once does anyone treat him as anything much above subhuman. Yet, as McCarthy introduces Lester, we read:

To watch these things issuing from the otherwise mute pastoral morning is a man at the barn door.  He is small, unclean, unshaven.  He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence.  Saxon and Celtic bloods.  A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

Much like yourself, indeed.  When you think about people like Lester, what do you feel?  Do you have an obligation to love Lester?  Do you have an obligation to notice Lester?  Do you have an obligation to help Lester?  Because, you see, nobody else loves or cares for Lester; nobody else is going to help Lester.  He is a child of God, much like yourself.  So, what are your obligations toward Lester?

And, by the way, Lester is a necrophiliac.  Does that change anything?

Oh, and he isn’t just a passive necrophiliac.  Sure, his first girl was dead when he found her, but after that, he created the corpses himself.  Does that change anything?

At what point does our friendless, loveless, social outcast deserve to be a friendless, loveless, social outcast?  McCarthy is one of the greatest novelists ever in plumbing the depths of human depravity.  But, before you go dismissing Lester as something beneath notice, just remember he is a child of God…much like yourself perhaps.  That sentence, which occurs on the second page of the novel, haunts the entire story.  One part of the Reader wants to dismiss Lester as something Other, but another part of the Reader knows the Truth.  Deep down, are you really any better than Lester? Are any of us really any better than Lester?  And before you hastily answer that yes indeed you are different, ponder what entitles you to be considered a Child of God while Lester is not.

Stephen Crane could have provided the epigraph to this novel.

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
And carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

As is my wont, I Goggled the novel after finishing it. There is a movie of this novel soon to be released.  Curious.  Hollywood has certainly discovered McCarthy.  (Can the movie version of Blood Meridian be far behind?  Is it even possible to make a film of that novel and capture even a sliver of the horror contained therein while still getting a rating of R?)  Honestly, I have a hard time imagining that the Child of God movie will even begin to mimic the depths of this novel; homeless necrophiliac certainly has enough shock value to make a Hollywood movie, but can said movie ever hope to simultaneously be a work of Great Art?   I suppose the best case is that this will be akin to the difference between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”—I enjoy both, but only one is even within shouting distance of the realm of Timeless.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Experiment in Either Misery or Luxury

As we walked toward the station the stranger stopped often to observe types which interested him.  He did it with an unconscious calm insolence as if the people were bugs.  Once a bug threatened to beat him.  “What ‘cher lookin' at?” he asked of him.  “My friend, said the stranger, “if any one displays real interest in you in this world, you should take it as an occasion for serious study and reflection.  You should be supremely amazed to find that a man can be interested in anybody but himself!”

That’s Stephen Crane in “Coney Island’s Failing Days,” included in the Library of America’s collection under the section heading of “New York City, 1892-94.”  The quotation there could stand in for a summary of the whole section.  One imagines Crane wandering through the town for three years simply observing and writing down what he sees.  We get portraits of the lowest of the low and the wealthiest. We get snapshots of odd moments in the life of the city.  All done with Crane’s eye for the telling detail.

Is such observation enough?  Crane certainly observes more than most.  Is he right that the objects of notice should be grateful for the simple fact of being noticed? 

Consider: “When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers.”  In this brief sketch a man walking along with his boy falls to the ground, insensible.  A crowd gathers.  (The alert and perceptive reader can see from whence the title of this piece comes.)  Five pages later, an ambulance has carried the man off.  And what have we learned? 

Curiously, Crane’s story is much like watching the evening news.  Man falls.  CNN reports on it.  Next story.  Sometimes we continue to stare after the ambulance as it leaves the scene.  “It was as if they had been cheated.  Their eyes expressed discontent at this curtain which had been rung down in the midst of the drama.  And this impenetrable fabric suddenly intervening between a suffering creature and their curiosity, seemed to appear to them as an injustice.”

I finished reading this set of pieces by Crane a few weeks back, and I am still troubled by it all.  This morning, I was rereading Evangelii Gaudium, Francis’ first encyclical from last November.  In this much misunderstood encyclical, Francis is desperately trying to convince the Church, Christians everywhere, and indeed the whole world, that we need to pay more attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, the weak, the lowly.  And surely he is right.  But, Francis is missing the bigger point being made by Crane:  do we pay sufficient attention to the not-so-poor and not-so-weak?  Indeed, do we pay sufficient attention to anyone, anyone at all?

Man falls.  Not just the poor man, but the rich man too.  Perhaps the crowd surrounding the rich man is bigger than that surrounding the poor man, but is that enough?  Shouldn’t we also help the poor man out a bit?  Obviously.  But, what about the rich man?  Should we say that since he has wealth, it is enough to gather around when he falls?

We don’t notice people as people.  We notice that they fall, and we gather when they do, but who are these nameless people?  Who was that student I just saw walk past my office?  Shouldn’t I care?

Crane offers no solution; this is voyeurism, pure and simple.  I am not sure what to make of it.  I read about people in the depths of a coal mine in the late 19th century and I think…I have no idea what I think.  I read about gawkers gathered around a fire and I think, “Here I am gawking at the gawkers. I am being exactly as helpful as they are.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sharpen the Saw

As the cover of the 25th anniversary edition says, “25 million copies sold.”  It shows up repeatedly on lists found if you do a Google Search for “Great Books on Leadership.”  At the front of the book, there are some blurbs of praise for the book—17, (yes seventeen!) pages of praise.  Then there are 13 pages of forward matter written by people other than the author telling you how amazing the book is.  The back cover proclaims the book is “A Timeless Bestseller.”

It was a very dull book.  Very dull.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is full of advice on how to make your life better.  Be Proactive!  Begin With the End in Mind!  Put First Things First!  Think Win/Win!  Seek First To Understand, Then Be Understood! Synergize! Sharpen the Saw! 


It’s not that any of the things in this book are bad advice.  All in all, it’s good advice.  If the whole thing was a 21 page pamphlet, it would be a good thing to hand out to first year college students to tell them how to run their lives effectively.  But, 371 pages of it?  Really?

The good thing about a book like this for a class on “Leadership and the Liberal Arts” is that it completely removed my latent guilt feeling that I was depriving the students of one of the modern textbooks on leadership.  By reading this book, they read the equivalent of one of the leadership textbooks.  It is the same insipid content blown up into gargantuan proportions to make it seem that something Deep, really Deep, is being said.  Win/Win is a good strategy—way better than Lose/Win or Lose/Lose.  Indeed, let me explain to you why Lose/Lose is a bad strategy.  Let me also explain why Lose/Win is a Bad strategy.  At length.  With examples.  Oh, and here are some more examples on why Win/Win is so good. And I’ll throw in a few more examples.  And talk some more about Frankl. And that picture of the women who looks young or old depending on how you look at it.  And P/PC.

Before this semester, I thought that Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey would be much the same.  They aren’t.  Carnegie’s book was not nearly as painful to read—more chapters, shorter anecdotes.  Covey went to the Belabor the Point to Death school of writing.  Carnegie wanted to be my friend so he kept it snappy.  Covey’s advice is better than Carnegie’s, to be sure, but nonetheless, reading Covey’s book was not fun.  At all.  Too many buzzwords masquerading as content.  And did I mention there are a lot of anecdotes?

I did try out some of his techniques on Clara while I was reading the book.  They work.  So there is that.  Like I said, it’s not that the advice is bad.  It’s just the book that is bad.

By the way, Sharpen the Saw is not all about how to do this sort of thing.  It is all about making sure you keep yourself renewed in the Physical, Social/Emotional, Spiritual, and Mental Dimensions.  There is even an circle diagram to show you that there are four dimensions and they are linked by curved lines.  Not sure why it is a circle instead of a diamond, but I suppose that maybe the deeper points have eluded me.