Sunday, June 5, 2011

On Leadership

I’m going to take a page out of my good friend T.A.S’s book and abandon my traditional journal entry approach and attempt something more like an essay for this entry. A lot has happened since my last entry, but rather than try to recount it I’m going to focus on some of the themes that have been running through my thoughts in the past few months.

I’ve never wanted to be the leader. I vividly remember a Boy Scout meeting where the Scoutmaster from another troop was giving a presentation about leadership to the Patrol Leaders and Assistant Senior Patrol Leaders. At one point he posed the question to us “Raise your hand if you want to be Senior Patrol Leader someday!” I didn’t raise my hand. “Every one of should have your hand up right now.” I silently begged to differ.
I eventually became Senior Patrol Leader, not out of any volition of my own, at a certain point I was simply the oldest boy left who hadn’t been Senior Patrol Leader yet (the Scoutmasters relentless overturned the patrol leadership so every boy got a chance to be the leader). I didn’t mind being in charge, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it either. What I enjoyed about Boy Scouts were the friendships I built and the cool trips we went on. Being the leader didn’t enhance those, if anything it made them less enjoyable because it set me apart from everyone else.
That being said, I did enjoy being an Assistant Senior Patrol Leader. I like making things happen and I like helping people, so working with the various Patrol Leaders to plan our weekly meetings and monthly trips was all good. I don’t have any problems being a leader, so long as I’m not the leader. In all the various committees and leadership groups I’ve been a part of since high school, I’ve always aimed to find a niche where I can be helpful and get things done without being the guy at the top.

Bert and I have been watching (and really enjoying) the HBO series Game of Thrones, which, as the title suggests, is all about the political machinations of various noble families as they try to take control of the throne. Everybody wants to be the king, which leads to lots of scheming and backstabbing. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but I would never want to be involved in power-grabbing like that.
In the first episode of Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, a relentlessly honest and noble man, is asked by the king to be the king’s Hand (think a combination of Vice-President and Chief of Staff). Ned is reluctant to accept because it will mean leaving his own kingdom in the north and splitting his family in half (not to mention that the last Hand of the king died under mysterious circumstances). Ned accepts the position and almost immediately regrets it.
Ned bristles at the shady dealings and loose morals of the capitol. He is constantly at odds with the King and the King’s council. He is unwilling to compromise his morals. He knows what honor and virtue would demand for every situation and expects that simply pointing out what the “right” thing to do is will end all debate on the topic. The A.V. Club suggests LINK this is the series’ central theme: “whether this kind of nobility can survive in any way, shape, or form in a political system that rewards those who play the game the best.” Ned sticks to his morals, but things don’t work out well for him.

I have a lot of sympathy for Ned Stark, and while I don’t think I’m quite as blind or strongly principled as Ned, I do have the same tendency to steadfastly refuse to do things that conflict with my sense of how the world should be. This unwillingness to compromise is probably not a good trait for the leader as a majority of what the leader does is make compromises with and between people.
Does that mean the best leaders are unprincipled or amoral? It depends on what you mean by best. I think the difficulty of maintaining a highly principled stance when in a leadership position accounts for many of the negative connotations of the word politician. The people who succeed at the political game are often those who are best at convincing people they represent the peoples’ beliefs, not the ones with strong beliefs of their own. This can lead to politicians who seem to lack convictions as they change their stance to suit the popular mood. Nobody wants to be led by someone like that, you can’t trust them. The best leaders are the ones you can trust (and the “Arab Spring” has given us many examples of the worst type of leader). But if politics is a game best played by the untrustworthy, how can the trustworthy win?

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