David Foster Wallace on Leadership

Sometimes the clearest view of something comes from a non-expert. Their language and descriptions are usually original and not influenced or derived from another source. This is especially true when the subject is leadership. Very few topics have been written about and discussed as much as leadership, and an honest view from a non-expert can be hard to find. In his 2000 essay “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,” found in the excellent book Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, the celebrated author David Foster Wallace considers leadership:

The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

 

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, can inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you looked up to and wanted to be just like.

 

Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are authority figures, but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

 

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

Isn’t that a refreshing and inspiring view of leaders? I think so. It’s a nice reminder in a time when the qualities of leadership and leaders are not as clear as they could be.

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