Saturday, January 14, 2012

Deresiewicz on Leadership

Two fine bloggers have recently quoted William Deresiewicz's article on leadership: John D Cook and Vivek Haldar. I was deeply moved when I first read this article. I have now read it again, and I still think it is a wonderful little essay, an excellent work of inspirational rhetoric. On its substance, though, my feelings are more mixed.

I still agree with much of what he says.

I agree that many of those who are accepted into elite schools are actually meek conformists, who were selected precisely because they jumped through hoops to please their teachers and seniors.

However, I don't think those who did not get into those schools are any better at independent thinking: maybe they simply lacked self discipline.

I agree when he writes that
excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.
or that
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.
This blog post is an example of that. Maybe I will have a third thought soon, and repudiate what I am now writing. After all, the mind cannot foresee its own future.

I agree with him that leadership requires independent thought. I would add that leadership is for those who have grown accustomed to solitude, who won't crumble at the first sign of being isolated. I also agree that this requires long preparation: a battlefield is no place for philosophy. I agree that we discover what we believe by saying it out loud, to friends who we can trust.

However, Deresiewicz never considers some important questions: What is this leadership? Why do we need it? Why are so many large organizations so inhospitable to independent thought?

There can be good reasons why he wouldn't discuss these questions. He is speaking to young officers, many of whom will soon be going off to war. These deflating questions are hardly what they need as they begin their careers.

This passage, though, makes me wonder if he has ever asked these questions even to himself:
We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them.
It seems to me that Deresiewicz himself is the prisoner of an ideology of leadership, which attributes America's "power and wealth" to leadership. This is pernicious nonsense, which encourages and delusions of grandeur among the powerful.

Leadership is not something you do alone. It is requires other people to allow you to lead. At times of great stress and uncertainty, people who seem to know what to do will attract followers. Independent thinking becomes necessary. When times are good, independent thinking needs to justify itself: the safest thing to do is what has always been done.

Leadership is not only a matter of your traits or behavior. The same behavior may be considered arrogant and obstinate, or decisive and strong-willed, depending on the context. A person may be said to be delusional or visionary, depending on the situation and, above all, on the outcome.

As Joseph Nye notes in this article about charisma, the classic example is Winston Churchill
Followers are more likely to attribute charisma to leaders when they feel a strong need for change, often in the context of a personal, organizational, or social crisis. For example, the British public did not regard Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but, a year later, his vision, confidence, and communication skills gave him charisma, given Britons’ anxiety after the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation. And then, in 1945, after the public’s focus had turned from winning the war to constructing a welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office.
He also points out that
Similarly, the business press has described many a CEO as “charismatic” when things are going well, only to withdraw the label when profits fall.
The same man suddenly appears deluded and out of touch. Churchill could have testified that it also works in reverse: during the years before 1939, he was considered obsessive and paranoid for constantly warning of the danger posed by Hitler. Today, we consider him a prophet: that is not what his contemporaries called him.

This is not to say that charisma doesn't exist, or that there are no born leaders. We are attracted by confident people who seem to be in control of the situation. We often lack confidence in our own views, and happily drown our own doubts when faced with the certainties of others.

As Nye writes
Non-verbal signals account for a major part of human communications, and simple experiments have shown that some people communicate non-verbally better than others. For example, a Princeton University study found that when people were shown images of two candidates in unfamiliar elections, they could predict the winners seven times out of ten.
No doubt the leading candidate gains in confidence, and that confidence makes him seem even more dominant, even more assured of victory over his increasingly demoralized opponent, and the voters can probably detect this in their body language, setting up a self-fulfilling expectations of success and failure.

Dan Kahneman describes how he discovered the "illusion of validity" while trying to identify future leaders for the Israeli Army
The stars we saw on the obstacle field were most likely accidental flickers, in which a coincidence of random events — like who was near the wall — largely determined who became a leader. Other events — some of them also random — would determine later success in training and combat.

You may be surprised by our failure: it is natural to expect the same leadership ability to manifest itself in various situations. But the exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error.
I think Deresiewicz's article is valuable, but not because it shows us how to become leaders. The behaviors he describes may be necessary for leadership, but are certainly not sufficient. Leadership is not necessarily a good thing, and can even be harmful. The worship of leadership can subvert respect for due process and the rights of the little people who come in the way of the visions of great men.

The article is valuable as a reminder of virtues which are worth practicing for their own sake.

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