Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Mirror of Princes

Through the medieval period and into the Renaissance, the bookshelves of royalty, who may not themselves have been able to read, but certainly employed people who could read for their listening pleasure, were often populated by tomes which we now call 'the mirror of princes'. These were instruction manuals for how to rule well, which might take the form of a history, or possibly a more sophisticated theoretical treatise. Among their number are included the riveting History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours and the pedantic Education of a Christian Prince by the Renaissance scholar Erasmus. These days we love our diagrams and flowcharts, our 12-step programs and idiot's guides to everything under the sun. The medieval authors of the principium specula, however, learned a lesson from Plato. In order to 'see' an idea in action, a theory put into practice, you had to tell a story about that idea woven into a human narrative.

CNN is the first channel I turn to in the morning, and usually the last channel I turn to before going to bed. As an avid viewer, it has come to my attention that America suffers from a dearth of good leaders. Most of this, I understand, is rhetoric, but even rhetoric contains traces of reality. When President Obama won't accommodate Congressional Republicans, for example, he is accused of failing to lead. Read between the lines. What you discover is that Congressional Republicans are actually complaining that Obama is refusing to see things their way. Lobbing the failure-to-lead barb across the aisle turns out to be a subtle way of saying you ought to follow us. But America doesn't seem to lack books, the intellectual successors to the principium specula, purporting to teach exactly what effective leadership is. Indeed, it is strange that America should suffer from a dearth of leadership at exactly the same time leadership programs across the educational spectrum are more popular than ever before. Everyone who is anyone is either enrolled or offering their own seminar.

Talk about leadership borders on the absurd. Leadership is what we need. It's also what we're missing, and where we should be investing our money. And what is this most rarefied of commodities? The contemporary discourse about leadership is fraught with dialectical implausibility. We say need leaders. More likely we want you to pay for our leadership seminar--which we will be leading. We talk about leadership as if it is tangible commodity. More likely we exercise it over you by naming it, in the process claiming it for ourselves. After all, unless you are the one talking about leadership, unless you are defining what it is, you are a following someone else's lead. The logic of leadership is either/or. It has to be. Someone must take the initiative, or someone must have the final decision. This is why, incidentally, the republican John Locke was also a defender a royal supremacy.

The medieval authors of the principium specula might also be accused of engaging in the same sort of duplicitous talk. After all, kings did the commanding; learned men did the thinking and writing. This could be taken as an example of a tail wagging the dog. One lesson that the medieval authors might afford our contemporaries, however, is that the exercise of leadership is, in some sense, an exercise of moral authority over others. Being that, it cannot be talked about in the abstract, nor objectified, nor commodified, without missing the essential point about what it is to lead. That is also why every promise you hear from a contemporary author or 'leader' to reveal their secret formula for effective leadership actually boils down to a string of unrepeatable, personal anecdotes about what a person did in this or that situation that allowed them to rise to the challenge and overcome all odds. It has to do with interpersonal relations, which are ultimately not quantifiable, measurable, nor constrained by formulaic description.

Instead of talking about effective leadership, which can border cultic adoration of a personality (...cue reference to Hitler), we should be talking about the communal context of effective leadership. Instead inflating certain persons beyond all human proportions, we ought to reflect on the humanity that binds us all together. The only way to escape the either/or logic of leading and following is to begin by insisting the relation between the two is not absolute. And that means tempering our language about leadership.

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