It’s not the 3 years I served in the Marines (Sergeant) during World War II (American, Pacific, and China theaters) nor the 10 years I served in the Air Force (Reserve Major) as a Threat Analyst in Soviet Studies (U.S. and Europe) that gave me experience in leadership. That service in the Marines and the Air Force certainly has helped in shaping my experiential concept of and perspective on leadership. What gives weight to my commentary on leadership are the years I spent as Dean of the Hispanic Leadership Institute (still there) at Arizona State University (ASU) at Tempe from 1986 to 1990.
I was a member of the cadre that founded the Hispanic Leadership Institute while I was Professor of English and Comparative Literature at ASU. Ramon Leon, President of Valle del Sol in Phoenix at the time (1986) was chair of the cadre that founded The Hispanic Leadership Institute as a joint venture between Valle del Sol (a community-based organization) and Arizona State University. We built a firm foundation for the Hispanic Leadership Institute though it’s the stewardship of the organization since then which is why it’s still operational at ASU.
After 1990 when I accepted a position at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, as Professor of English and Communication/Information Studies with appointments in the English Department and the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, I continued my interests in leadership activities as Chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Network and as a Lilly Fellow for Community Leadership from 1990 to 1992. The Fellowship with the Lilly Foundation gave me experience in helping communities across the country to organize and develop community leadership organizations as well as intense advanced training in leader-ship development.
Since then I’ve not only taught courses on leadership development at various universities but have conducted leadership training for national professional groups and organizations. At Western New Mexico University where I’m currently Scholar in Residence in Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, and Social Policy I teach the leadership courses in the curriculum of the Department of Chicano and Chicana and Hemispheric Studies that constitute a minor area of studies for students who want to hone their leadership skills.
Important to consider in the realm of leadership is that a title does not bestow knowledge of nor experience in leadership. In Roman times Caligula and Nero were titular emperors of the Roman empire without (or with modest) knowledge and experience as leaders. In our time, “managers” of entities or organizations are thought of as leaders when, in effect, a “manager” is principally a caretaker while a leader is a visionary who by action makes reality of the vision. Metaphorically I explain that a leader is someone who aims an arrow at a target no one can see and hits it. That may seem a bit jejune and preposterous but the aphorism as metaphor works.
In my role as philosopher and scholar of leadership I’m often asked to define “leadership.” It’s a perennial question that elicits no single concrete answer. This was always the prime question asked by students of the Hispanic Leadership Institute. Most often my response was couched as a parable or as a story. For example, in responding to the question I’ve often cited John Steinbeck’s short story “Flight” in which Pepe Torres rides into Monterrey (California) for salt and medicine. He’s elated to be sent by his mother on this errand of great importance. He sets off for town with his father’s round black hat and green silk handkerchief. After Pepe has left for town, Pepe’s younger brother asks his mother if by going to town Pepe will become a man to which she responds that a boy will become a man when a man is needed. I tell my leadership students that they will be leaders when a leader is needed.
In other words, there is no set formula for the advent of leadership, though leadership training is good preparation. “Leadership is a complex process having multiple dimensions” (Northouse, 1). There are as many definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it. In my class on Community Leadership Development I use the text on Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition) by Peter G. Northouse. It’s a good introductory text that covers various approaches and theories of leadership, enabling students to get a panoramic view of leadership styles from which to judge their effectiveness. I explain to my students that there is no exact science of leadership. While the triad of race, moment, and milieu of the French critic and historian Hipolyte Taine (1828-1893) applied to literary criticism, it seems to me that those considerations apply equally well to leadership.
In all of the “races” (as we apply that term) in the history of humankind, individuals have emerged historically as leaders, though “race” is not an essential element of leadership. “Moment” and “milieu” are more apt considerations of leadership. Oftentimes the “moment” engenders the leader—the moment a leader is needed (as explained by Pepe Torres’ moth-er) The same for “milieu”—the place: surroundings oftentimes brings forth a leader. Taine emerged as a 19th century intellectual leader in France in the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and Napoleon’s ambitions. As a Positivist philosopher, Taine astutely perceived the triadic social connection between race, moment and milieu. Evident is the triangulations of Taine’s social triad—ultimately all working together. While the triad was meant to focus on literature, its application to leadership is significant as I have pointed out.
Leadership is often making sense of what seems to make no sense. In 1871, Charles Dodgson known as Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass, a work of children’s literature which has been generally categorized as “literary nonsense” principally because of its plot devices like time running backwards and jabberwocky—a nonsense rhyme like this: “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Despite its ostensible nonsense, the rhyme yields startling semiotic meaning. For example, though we don’t know what “slithy toves” are we know they were gyring and gimbling in the wabe under conditions that were brillig.
Through the Looking-Glass was a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland published in 1865 and is considered “a kind of mirror image of Alice in Wonderland.” The consideration of “mirror image” is most apt since there are many mirror themes in Through the Looking Glass. At the start of the book Alice explains to her unruly cat what’s on the other side of the mirror. Then impulsively she passes through the glass to the Looking-Glass House, into the image of where she’s been. But Alice discovers there’s more to the image in the mirror than can be seen. Leadership is like that: there’s more to a situation than is discernible, though we are enjoined to willingly suspend our disbelief (cognitive estrangement) as the 19th century English critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed in allowing a reader to “discover” the essence of a creative work.
In the main, leadership is the ability to convince others—as I have mentioned—about the existence of a “target” no one can see, not even the leader, a target the leader aims an arrow toward and convinces those around him that he or she has hit it, corroborated by outcome(s)—the proof. Sounds fanciful, but that’s the nature of leadership: achieving what is not necessarily predicated by the circumstances—like pulling a rabbit out of a hat when we know there are no rabbits in the hat!
Leadership involves the ability to influence a group of people to achieve a purpose or a common goal. But this can be a minefield as Albert Einstein described the achievement of goals: envisioning goals is the ‘’perfection of means and confusion of ends” (in Gardner, 11). John Gardner calls influence “the process of persuasion” (1).
When thinking of leaders one almost immediately thinks of the demeaning term followers though the more appropriate term is constituents since the process of leadership is a reciprocal process. Important to bear in mind is that leadership is not the same as status or a position in a hierarchy of authority. This is not to say that such a person has no leadership qualities. While acumen is no substitute for leadership, it can at times achieve the ends of leadership.
It’s safe to say that the crux of leadership lies in self-discipline, determination, and logical persuasion. The old adage that “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” holds true for leadership. A group can be led to the brink of action but only logical persuasion can move it to action. Logical persuasion means convincing the group that the desired action and
its outcome is in its best interest or the best interest of the community or society.
Leadership is not about physical strength, resistance to temptation or personal denial but the willingness to manage one’s time. Time Management helps to multi-task, that is, engage in more than one activity at a time—like chewing gum and walking at the same time, making sure not to over-commit oneself.
At the heart of leadership, however, is the philosophical axiom of the Serenity Prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr which asks us to consider the realities of life: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” In other words: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” President Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher,” and Senator John McClain identified Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity
A popular axiom of leadership is that a wise leader knows when to do battle and when not to. Like Santayana reminds us, a leader must heed the lessons of history, otherwise be condemned to repeat it. That is, a leader must be intellectually prepared for the tasks of leader-ship. Cosmetics and unctuous rhetoric are not the stuff of leadership. Otherwise we shall be off like Don Quixote chasing windmills thinking they are evil giants or searching for weapons of mass destruction that aren’t there.
The wisdom of leadership is not accepting what is but in knowing what is possible. In his address before the Irish Parliament on June 28, 1963, just months before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy drew from George Bernard Shaw’s Pentateuch play(s) Methuselah the expression: “Other people see things and . . . say ‘Why?’ . . . But I dream of things that never were– and say: ‘Why not?” This expression is often attributed to Robert Kennedy.
Much of the world’s travails today is because of leadership that seeks its own aggrandizement rather than the well-being of those who have entrusted themselves to that leadership. Or else they are enchained by what William Blake, the English poet, described as “mind-forged manacles.” That is, people are handcuffed blindly to their beliefs. The role of a leaders is to help those around him or her to remove that which holds them hostage or in bond-age to self-defeating ideas or self-destructive principles.
When asked “Who was a leader?” the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen replied: A leader is oftentimes is he [or she] who is following. In other words, a leader is often not the one who is at the head of the line. A more current concept of leadership posits the leader as servant, citing the biblical narrative of Christ washing the feet of his disciples.
In Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, a band of men falls apart when its servant Leo disappears. Unable to continue, the journey is abandoned; the men cannot make it without their servant Leo. After some years the narrator of the journey discovers that Leo has been in fact “a great and noble” leader of a renowned spiritual order.
In my leadership classes I make reference to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. In one of the stories central to the film version starring Rock Hudson, a Martian settler’s children ask him who the Martians are. After telling them about his journey from Earth to Mars, the father takes them to the bridge over a pool of water and tells them to look down onto the surface of the water where they see their own reflections. There, the father tells them, there are the Martians. To the students in my leadership classes who ask how to identify a leader I tell them to look in a mirror. There, I say to them, there is a leader staring back at them from the looking glass.
At a voter rally in New Hampshire John McCain was asked why he talked about issues that voters don’t like to which he answered: “I know what’s best for America” (Newsweek, August 8, 2007, 32). With due respect to the Senator, that’s not leadership. A leader doesn’t tell his prospective constituents what’s best for them. A leader let’s constituents find out for themselves what’s best for them, then helps them in achieving it, in getting there.
I’m aware that credentials do not a leader make. But I know leadership when I see it or am in its presence. Sadly, what passes for leadership today is ersatz. Perhaps because individuals are placed in leadership positions who haven’t a clue about leadership. To be sure, there are individuals who are leaders innately. Which brings up the question: Are leaders born or are they made?
There’s no clear answer here. Indeed, some individuals emerge as “born” leaders; others are made by circumstances. Regardless of their genesis, leadership is a mix of charisma, vision, pragmatism, and people-savvy, including ambition as well as eye of newt and ear of toad. This is to say again that there is no exact formula for leadership. When groups or organizations are doing well, leadership is seamless; when groups or organizations are doing badly, lack of leadership becomes all too obvious. But leadership is not always about the pursuit for the common good. Look at Genghis Khan, Machiavelli, or Hitler. They had incredible leadership skills–however misguided or misplaced.
Language and leadership are difficult to separate, more so as concomitants of communication. Like Taine’s triad of race, moment, and milieu, language, leadership, and communication are a troika in the “leaders” toolkit for professional development and motivational success. The person with facile language skills is not necessarily a leader. But a leader must have facile language skills. That truism is not as contradictory as it may sound.
Copyright 2015 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Burns, James MacGregor, Leadership, Harper & Row, 1978.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria, 1817.
Cribbin, James J., Leaderhip: Your Competitive Edge, American Management Association, 1981.
Freeman, Linton C., Patterns of Local Community Leadership, Bobbs Merrill, 1968.
Gardner, John W., On Leadership. The Free Press, 1990.
Hesse, Herman, Journey to the East, Samuel Fischer. 1932 (English 1956).
Manske, Jr., F.A. Secrets of Effective Leadership: A Practical Guide to Success. Leadership
Education and Development, Inc., 1987.
Northouse, Peter G., Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition), Sage, 2013.
Taine, Hypolite A., History of English Literature (translate by H. Van Laun, 2nd Edition), Edmonton and Douglas, Edinburgh, 1872.