The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

On Leadership


I read the latest Harry Potter book this weekend. And I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the big theme of this volume is leadership.

I also just read a book called “The Crazed” by Ha Jin, which is not about leadership so explicitly, but is certainly about moral courage and guidance. (It takes place in China in the lead-up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, if that’s any indication.)

So I have been thinking a bit about moral leadership today. And, to my distress, as I look around the world, around the public sphere, I can’t find any.

At least not the kind I want.

(Note: A cut-and-pasted line from Harry Potter in the extended entry. It doesn’t give anything away, but fair warning all the same!)

I’m talking about Dumbledore-class leaders, here. Not idealogues, scolds, or tacticians, but wise, experienced adults.

In his essay Politics as Vocation, Max Weber describes the English prime minister William Gladstone‘s rise to power like this:

What brought this machine to such swift triumph over the notables was the fascination of Gladstone’s ‘grand’ demagogy, the firm belief of the masses in the ethical substance of his policy, and, above all, their belief in the ethical character of his personality.

Now, George W. Bush engages in very effective grand demogogy, for sure. But do “the masses” believe in the ethical substance of his policy? I don’t think half a mass counts. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask for somebody — not necessarily a politician, but somebody — who can muster more than that.

There’s a scene in “The Half-Blood Prince” that ends like this:

There was a long pause.

“Well, it is clear to me that he has done a very good job on you,” said Scrimgeour, his eyes cold and hard behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “Dumbledore’s man through and through, aren’t you, Potter?”

“Yeah, I am,” said Harry. “Glad we straightened that out.”

Jeez, I can’t even tell you how much I want that: Somebody great of heart, full of flinty phronesis and maturity, who deserves some allegiance.

Buuut I’m just not spotting any Dumbledores or Gandalfs. No Jed Bartlets or President Roslins either.

So, two questions for the Snarkmatrix:

1. Am I overlooking somebody? A public figure anywhere in the world with some moral gravity?

2. Absent that: Have you read any good writing on this subject? Contemporary or not — I think I’d enjoy reading some smart people’s reactions to the wisdom vacuum.

July 16, 2005 / Uncategorized


If you’r ethinking about leadership, Robin, may I recommend the book “The Mask of Command,” by the British military historian John Keegan? His style can be a bit of an acquired taste, but I’ve been fascinated by several of his books. (“The Face of Battle” is his best known and, in my view, best).

I also selected this collection of bits about leadership from Sun Tzo (“The Art of War”) that you might find interesting:

… The skillful general leads an army just as though he were leading a single man by the hand.

… Confront your soldiers with the deed itself, never let them know your design. When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes, but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.

… The art of giving orders is not to try to rectify the minor blunders and not to be swayed by petty doubts. Vacillation and fussiness are the surest means of sapping the confidence of an army.

… The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. He takes individual talent into account, and uses each man according to his capacities. He does not demand perfection from the untalented.

Matt says…

An observation: all of your examples for the type of leadership you’re seeking are fictional. I think the traits you see as making a good leader are tremendously appealing to us as fiction, but seldom find much practical reward in the realm of politics. It may be that the people who have the level of maturity needed for wise leadership are also mature enough to recognize the soul-destroying nature of modern politics (if you’ll excuse the hyperbole) They choose instead to devote their lives to something more personally and publicly constructive. Case in point: Paul Farmer.

Hmmm. You’re right about all my examples, but also right about Paul Farmer. I also find great wisdom in a lot of writers — guys like Philip Pullman and Billy Collins. But, b/c of their profession perhaps, they don’t seem to ‘lead’ in the classic sense. Maybe the classic sense is defunct, though, thanks to the acidic nature of politics & public life you point out?

I’m hearing several very different things being upheld as the Holy Grail here: wisdom, morality, leadership, experience. Which do you want?

The simplest answer for why all your examples are fictional is that omniscient authors grant certain characters a degree of mystical foresight. Of course all of Gandalf’s bold calculations will pay off in the end, Tolkien wrote it that way.

Also, authors tend to gloss over the dissatisfaction of whichever groups invariably get screwed over by the Wise Moral Leader’s bold decision-making, a variable that tends to muddy up the moral clarity and/or mass acceptance of the leader’s tactics in real life. The bigger and more complex the system being led, the smaller the chance everyone’s going to like the leadership. Even in fiction, Dumbledore only has to deal with a rather small constituency. Pope John Paul II was widely beloved, and I think you’d find many who’d describe him as the epitome of wise moral leadership, but then you can’t really overlook that thin collective that considers him one of the 20th Century’s worst moral tyrants, can you?

So I think you’ll find more success looking to local examples of leadership. Heads of less-than-state.

Cities, for example. Jamie Lerner of Curitiba could probably be considered a wise and moral leader, although he wasn’t exactly a seasoned politician when he started, he was an architect. (More on Jamie Lerner and Curitiba..)

And again, there are tons of examples of influential humanitarians, if that’s the only qualification. Wangari Maathai. Samantha Power. Nicholas Kristof. Some of them are even world leaders, like Thailand’s Queen Sirikit.

What more does it take to reach the level of a Dumbledore?

Well, first, I don’t think there’s really a difference between the things you enumerate, Matt. As a quasi-Aristotelian, I pretty much you discern ‘right action’ (or moral action) through the application of wisdom. And you get to be wise b/c of experience. And leaders ought to be wise. So it’s all connected.

And I certainly don’t think the essence of what I like about those fictional leaders has anything to do with mystical foresight; all of them, in their respective stories, make bad decisions. It’s not about them being RIGHT; it’s about them being GOOD. (Which is in turn often about being quite wrong but handling it well.)

Your comment about Pope John Paul II gets to the heart of my problem: I feel like a lot of other people in the world have somebody to whom they can give this kind of allegiance, whether it’s Bush or the Pope. I definitely don’t, and feel the poorer for it.

But all of your examples are excellent ones, Matt (and yours too, Matt prior).

However, I especially like the example of the Curitiba guy — I had read about him before & have always admired the story of that city. The reason I like him best is that he marries practical wisdom with an actual formal public role. Not sure why that’s especially appealing, but it is.

“Heads of less-than-state,” nice 🙂

Any more nominations out there?

Most of the books I see about leadership are written by sports coaches — they get gobbled up by motivational speech-goers and executive-retreat types. Maybe leadership has just gotten too watered-down.

In an op-ed a few days ago, David Brooks nominated John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Bobby Kennedy as people who became leaders by attacking some particular problem or injustice: the mob for Kennedy, lobbyists for McCain, and corrupt teachers’ unions for Giuliani. (Huh? Whatever.)

But the schema suggests that there are some leaders who have or at least develop “the vision thing” — Lincoln, Churchill, FDR — and others who do more practical grinding at specific problems. After reading Bill Finnegan’s article in this week’s New Yorker, I’ll nominate Ray Kelly and the guys in the NYPD’s counterterrorism department: not necessarily flashy stuff, but those guys are awesome. And if you read the article, a lot of their effectiveness comes from their sense of Kelly’s and others’ leadership on the issue.

I also think that history is a better place to look than fiction for examples of leadership. The one thing that Lincoln and, say, Ray Kelly have in common is a genuine sense of commitment and determination, combined with a full appreciation of the magnitude of their task. GWB might present a front of determination, but he seems entirely untroubled by loss of life, and this makes his apparent determination ring hollow. He doesn’t adequately recognize the existential costs of war — which Carl Schmitt famously argued was the essence of the political.

In “Politics as a Vocation” Weber distinguishes between two kinds of ethics: the “ethics of ultimate ends” which “does rightly and leaves the results with God,” and the “ethics of responsibility,” which is forced to contend with the consequences of one’s actions. Only the latter, Weber argues, is appropriate for politics, whose only ultimate means is violence — this is why political leadership is necessarily “a bargain with the devil.”

Now leadership in any other capacity — that of a cultural or political protest movement, for example — doesn’t necessarily entail that kind of calculus. But I think Weber and Schmitt are right to say that political leadership, because it effectively enjoys soverignty over life and death, is in some way basic to our understanding of leadership as such and to the kind of beings we are. And maybe this is why people like sports coaches so much — they tap into all of the subterranean martial metaphors of battle, struggle, sacrifice, victory and defeat, while avoiding the human cost of those metaphors’ actual source. And maybe that’s why GWB and the GOP seem more like football coaches on Monday morning rather than the real thing.

Tim: I’d exchange for Giuliani the mob crown (I’ve heard his bitterest critics say he was a gift when it came to being US Prosecutor) and give RFK the civil rights crown. The great thing about RFK was his ability to deeply, significantly, grimly change his mind, almost always for the better.

Here’s a short list from history, of varying magnitudes, really quite randomly culled:




Roger Williams

St. Francis of Assissi

I’m sticking to people known in widely in the west.

In my mind they all had a willingness to personally sacrifice a lot both for their cause and for others helping them in their cause. They were relatively to very humble. If they invoked or acknowledged a higher authority, they did so without being righteous or overwhelmingly arrogant about it. They struck those around them as being fundamentally kind people, and probably were. And they worked very very hard for what they thought to be right.

I think the latter four qualities just go into making one a really good, respectable, person. Small scale leader. The first quality, however, which is fundamentally a willingness to sort of throw the course of your life into your cause, is what makes someone stand above a wider crowd.

And then you need that person to be a clever strategist, a n imaginative visionary, and a good manager of people.

I think the sports-genre describes those last, talent based qualities. We have a lot of those people. It’s not too hard. That’s probably what you need to be born with.

I think the salt-of-the earth stuff is from a combination of nurture and self-will. It helps if you parents raise you to be a good person, but you also have to passionately want to be a good person, and work at it constantly.

But the committed self-sacrifice, the throwing oneself into the abyss of history, is a gamble of self-will that has to be made at the right time, for the right cause–and only the right cause. It’s bound to fail all the time, even for people who satisfy all the previous criteria. For those who don’t, I’m sure it fails constantly. And many who do satisfy all the previous criteria fail to make the gamble at all.

So if you want to produce these kinds of leaders, I guess give them good genes, raise them to be well read, skilled people, as well as kind, humble, thoughtful, responsible people, and somehow train them in the fine art of gambling with one’s life. And hope they can be passionate enough about something worthy such that they make the gamble when the opportunity presents itself.

But if you want to find those people? I have no idea how.

“The throwing of oneself into the abyss of history”! Wow!

Just on an intellectual-historical note: there’s something to be said for “throwing oneself into the abyss of history.” In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, the hero is the fusion of the universal and particular whose personal strivings and talents somehow disclose and summarize the zeitgeist.

Moreover, Hegel notes that heroes are almost always killed by those (usually anonymous) members of the status quo to whom they pose a challenge; this is what Hegel calls “the cunning of reason” or (in a different context) “the slaughter-bench of history.”

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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