Can We Handle the Truth?
I confess I am not quite sure what to make of the recent avalanche of essays and books on leadership. In general I tend to be skeptical of how-to books, though I have no doubt that these authors might have some wisdom. I have cherished a book found in a used bookstore written by Donald Brann and titled, Bricklaying Simplified . Mr. Brann does a nice job laying out the basics, but I cannot imagine how one could learn to lay brick by reading his book. You can learn to lay brick only by being initiated into the craft by a master craftsman.
Laying brick and assuming a position of leadership may seem like apples and oranges, but just as learning to lay brick requires that one become an apprentice, so does learning to assume a position of leadership. Both to lay brick and to be responsible for the good of a community require the development of practical wisdom, for both laying brick and leadership involve the responsibility to make judgments. For example, most of the time when laying brick you can do what you have always done; but then one day you discover that your judgment is required to make a different choice because a particular corner has a unique angle. This is the practical wisdom of bricklaying. Leadership entails similar challenges.
Because leadership requires the development of practical wisdom, I worry about the attempt to develop general theories about what makes a good or effective leader. Different societal and community contexts affect what it means to lead, and these different contexts resist attempts to generalize about leadership. Put differently, the focus on leadership qua leadership may undercut more basic descriptions of offices determined by a community’s traditions, such as priest, president, teacher, parent, and physician. These descriptions should make a difference for the kind of judgments required by the office, as well as the mode of discernment required to make the judgments. Those called to exercise leadership operate in a particular context and for particular ends.
The desire to develop general accounts of leadership is an expression of our loss of a positive account of authority. In the absence of any agreements about why we need offices of authority, leadership becomes an attempt to legitimize why some have power over others. Subsequently, leadership qua leadership implies some people rise to positions of power in order to “get things done” and not because such positions are inherently necessary to the common good. As a result, leadership reproduces the assumption that we have no alternative to the manipulative character of our interactions in modernity. The modern aversion to authority means modern people have to be convinced that leadership is a good thing.
In his book After Virtue , philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we find it difficult to know what nonmanipulative interactions might look like; all evaluations are viewed as arbitrary because they can express only each person’s particular sentiments. Because we believe our moral commitments to be no more than an expression of our preferences, any effort to have others join us in what we think needs to be done means we have no choice but to resort to manipulative bargaining strategies in the hope some will identify with our arbitrary choices.
MacIntyre’s account of our social and political life may seem exaggerated, but confirmation of his account of our social and political lives can be readily found in a commercial for any candidate running for public office. They always promise to provide leadership, for example, by giving us economic prosperity. What is missing is any acknowledgment that it is by no means clear that political officeholders have the power to make the economy do anything. Yet anyone running for office cannot acknowledge they are not quite sure what can be done about the economy because such an acknowledgment would suggest that they are shirking from the presumed responsibilities of being a leader.
Our political discourse states that the president of the United States is the “leader of the free world.” What in the world does it mean for someone to be the leader of the free world? What or whom do they lead as the leader of the free world? This attribution seems to imply that America embodies the ideal of freedom and that leadership is a matter of securing said freedom. But rather than promising us security, they might remind us that we live in a dangerous world that is quite beyond the control of anyone—even the