Thursday, August 28, 2008
A Distant Sound of Thunder
In the old, old days before the cities and the highways, before the smokestacks and the chimneys, before we knew the sea and the sun, the sky and the stars for what they truly are - even in those ancient days - we knew what leadership was and we know it still. We feel its presence - the ancient Greeks said "the God is near" when they felt it, we know its absence too...
From the gods and demi-gods of Sumer: Enki and Innana through Gilgamesh with his friend and nemesis Enkidu to the heroes of the Iliad: "god-like" Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Diomedes and Odysseus, there is a common thread. In our ancient dreams we draw forth the leader from among us, we invest them with our trust and our collective honor and we demand one special thing from them...
Those whom the gods choose, we anoint with oil, we clothe with gold and in their honor we burn precious Frankincense from Ubar... Why?
Through the ages we have had many leaders - not all of them good, nor any of them perfect. They have a few attributes in common: some can mesmerize a crowd with thrilling rhetoric, some speak softly and move quietly along their way, some beguile with dreams of wonder or 'cry havoc' on an oppressor, stirring us to do what we had thought we could not do. There are some who revel in chaos or who are possessed by a holy fire; they send their acolytes to oblivion with promises of paradise ringing in their ears - they, too, are leaders. And there are some who have the power but, sadly, have nowhere to put it, no plan or one plan too many...
Most often we find the qualities of true leadership - in the place we would look first: the military. Leadership in the military is not an option, it is a bare, stark necessity. And, like courage, it need not be displayed because it is assumed. Woe to the young JG who fails this test, if he's lucky he may just be shouldered aside by his NCO, if not he may wake in the middle of the night next to a live grenade.
Here's the thing:
Leadership is comprised of many qualities: responsibility, courage, wisdom, experience, judgment, instinct, passion, vision, perseverance, loyalty... among others. But it is founded upon one quality only: sacrifice. All leaders understand this innately but most skew the interpretation to stand it on its ear, they think it must mean your sacrifice. These are always the bad leaders, the narcissists, the warmongers, the tinpot dictators, the power-mad politicians who will sacrifice anyone and everyone to gain their grail. They never seem to achieve it... and because of this fundamental misunderstanding, they never will.
True leadership, is based on self-sacrifice, on the willing gift or, as the Greeks put it, "the sacrifice that goes, consenting". In the elder days this was literal truth, in times of emergency, of war, of drought or famine, plague or pestilence; the king was called by the god to sacrifice himself for the people.
Oedipus, the King of Thebes sent to the Oracle at Delphi to ask Apollo what to do in a time of great drought and famine. He expected to be called to account for the city's sins and, in a way, he was. The Oracle told him to "seek out the unclean thing"; he did, and found himself.
We do not demand that our leaders hurl themselves from high places any more nor immolate themselves in the sacred fire nor battle dragons in their lairs. The nightmares are different now: the mushroom cloud, the ravening packs of corporate wolves, the manic hordes of religious madmen (perhaps not so different after all) but the bedrock principle of self-sacrifice remains the defining characteristic of leadership.
Why is this important?
It is important because the tale of history hangs on simple choices, choices that, in retrospect, look freighted with overt meaning but which looked innocent and simple at the time - simple as a hanging chad.
It is important because we have two exemplars in front of us right now, showing both sides and qualities of leadership. The one who spoke on Tuesday showed us elegance and grace, intelligence and compassion, aspiration and accomplishment. More than that, she exhibited all the qualities of the good leader: she shared with us and invited us to share with her and most of all she spoke of her dedication and continuing commitment to core principles and to the common good. Every idea was based on internal conviction and was applied to an external solution. This is the good leadership model: showing by thought and by action, the path forward and speaking the magic incantation: "Follow me!"
The other exemplar we will hear tonight and, if the past has any instructive value, he will, once again, tell us his story, tell us that he is the one he has been waiting for. He will use the rhetoric that attempts to make the 'other' into himself, subsuming his followers into his own ego, demanding that sacrifice to himself and then speaking of his dreams, his hope, his change. But there will be an emptiness in his words, as there always is, the hollowness of his core deprives his words of value, the emptiness of his principles is revealed as his lofty rhetoric falls flat. Because there is no internal transcendence of self, his speeches are devoid of power and worse, they show us his inner emptiness. This is why we recoil when he speaks.
One can also tell something about a leader by the company s/he keeps, by the actions of his/her followers and by the environment s/he chooses.
Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and Tony Rezco are not role models we want for our children, what they have in common is a willingness to suborn the good will of others in search of power. The actions of Axelrod, Pelosi, Dean and Brazile are wanton in their blatant contempt for democracy and savage in their zealotry.
The strutting, preening, pompous parade that is the Obama presentation will reach its climax tonight with his investiture at Invesco Field where, before 80,000 adoring acolytes, he will emerge from the colonnades of a faux Greek temple to accept their adulation. The histories of mad Roman emperors comes to mind. But that pales beside the modern mirror - an instantaneous comparison will rocket to the mind of anyone old enough to remember "Triumph of the Will". Perhaps there is no one on his staff who can remember those times - or has even seen the movie...
The faux presidential seal, the replacement of the US flag on the tail of his campaign plane with his branded logo, the 'beer and sausages' rock concert in Berlin - not at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of hope and freedom, but at the Siegessäule, the "Victory Column" used, among others, by Hitler to celebrate his victories over neighboring states. All these ornate trappings, the egregious excesses, the arrogance and contempt... all bespeak a man who knows his reach has exceeded his grasp, they are all an attempt to create the very thing they lack, to engender the confidence in others that is not manifest in the self.
There are many paths to self-knowledge, they all require hard work on the inner self to achieve that knowledge and they all require us to give up what we love best: ourselves. Musashi - the master swordsman of Japan, tells us in his "Book of Five Rings" that victory is only achieved when we can look into the Void.
The problem in general is that there are different types of people who grow or acquire leadership capabilities - being a leader is not a guarantee of good humor, good judgment or good sense. Certainly there is a quantum of talent involved in leadership, and there are a shelf full of books that will teach you everything you ever wanted to know (and a lot you didn't want to know) about how to practice leadership. A leader can be dedicated, passionate, loyal to his cause... and utterly evil (Pol Pot for instance) or he can have those same qualities and be regarded as a secular saint (Lincoln for instance - unless you're from the South).
The essential quality of the man or woman will always make itself manifest - you are known by the company you keep, by the deeds that you do and by the quality of the relationships that you form. If your relationships are about trust and honor, respect, consultation and mutually beneficial collaboration - the god stays with you and, sometimes, you will hear the distant sound of thunder.
If, on the other hand, your relationships are all about steppingstones to power or about power itself, then you may indeed ascend the rungs of power over the bodies of erstwhile friends and enemies alike - but the only sound you are likely to hear is the echo of your own thoughts...
"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." - Euripides