Leadership Material

This post was written by Ed Cutler, HC Fellow, English Department

An opinion piece in a recent New York Times carries a provocative title: “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.” The author is Susan Cain, founder of Quiet Revolution, a for-profit company that aims to “unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all.” In her piece, Cain advises that university admissions committees lose their fixation on “leadership potential” when considering prospective students. “If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value, then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type A” personalities. “It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.” The pressure to lead “defines and constricts our children’s adolescence,” Cain writes, and leads to the inevitable gaming of the competitive application system, forcing shy students into misguided attempts at overhauling their personalities to pursue leadership roles they may not be suited for, or even encouraging young people to read “leadership skills” as a code for authority and dominance.

Assuming you survived high school, you’ll recall the loathsome self-confidence of the dominant personalities (unless perhaps you were one of them) and doomed attempts at self-transformation (cf Jan’s black wig on The Brady Bunch).  Such memories are probably better left repressed, wherever you fell on the personality spectrum. It’s an awkward enough time of life, irrespective of whether there is more pressure than ever to manufacture a convincing persona as a youthful leader. I’m not convinced Cain’s is a growing concern, as universities have long imagined themselves as incubating future leaders, and have always sought evidence of this potential. I want to believe a seasoned admissions committee can see through empty resume padding and discern the underlying preparation and potential of a college applicant. But Cain’s piece raises an interesting and timely set of questions all the same—does the world really need more followers? Is leadership potential—or our perception of it—reducible to a personality trait? Are introverts at a natural or social disadvantage as leaders? Is extroversion and social confidence a particular advantage for the leaders of tomorrow?

Apropos of my own constricted adolescence, Cain’s sub-sub-title, “The World Needs Followers,” brought back a line from Caddyshack, which my high school friend Stu had so fully internalized he would involuntarily recite the film’s dialogue as if he were a damaged hard drive. One bit involves the movie’s hero, Danny, hoping to earn the college scholarship awarded by the country club where he caddies; he strategically tells a wealthy club member that he’d like to go to college but just can’t afford it. “Well,” Judge Smails consoles him, “the world needs ditch-diggers too Danny.” Perhaps the world needs followers, but the aspiration to become one, as Cain acknowledges, simply isn’t part of the American DNA. Standing above or apart from the crowd is American Individualism 101, and to the degree that the United States is a collective, it wants to be known as an exceptional one. Fate and circumstances may end up placing most of squarely within the crowd, but “followers wanted” is unlikely to ever gather much appeal.

Does the type-A personality equate to leadership potential? Does introversion caution against it? If colleges or any organization are sending that message, they are certainly shortsighted. Moses required Aaron as his mouthpiece. When the priest of Bethel tells Amos to “flee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there,” Amos is incredulous at the suggestion that he’d taken up prophesying as some kind of vocation: “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit.” So often in sacred history, the call to lead might appear to conflict with one’s origins or imagined capacities. Jesus himself rose from obscurity, and in turn raised up many leaders from the humblest of life circumstances, like Peter, and redirected the zeal of entitled and eloquent extroverts, like Paul. More often than not, those leaders who emerge in sacred history are neither the first-born nor the most likely candidates—based on resume or personality–for altering the course of world events. If anything, the example of history suggests we should check our presuppositions at the door and prepare to be surprised.

The same holds true for what Cain calls “thought-leaders” in many fields. The American philosopher Margaret Fuller was suspicious of assigning leadership potential (or any predetermined role) to traits that seem to inhere in personality or gender. “History jeers at the attempts of the physiologists to bind great original laws by the forms which flow from them.” These supposed experts make a rule; “they say from observation what can and cannot be.” All in vain, Fuller insists. “Nature provides exceptions to every rule. She sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother.” Fuller was by all accounts an extrovert through and through, and her education and intellect were unsurpassed by her nineteenth-century American contemporaries, male or female. Yet she endured the regular reproach of being a novelty, always first regarded as a woman in a man’s domain, even as she guided the American transcendentalist movement to the prominence and permanent place in American literary history it now holds.

There are many examples of thought-leaders like Fuller, people who break the mold or who must cast their lot with the future, with no guarantee the future will catch up or catch on. Craig calls this type of leader a “soloist,” a term tinged with the loneliness that so often accompanies genuine leadership. I’m reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s melancholy observation about solitary examples of true genius misperceived and tormented in life and consigned to oblivion in death: “That individuals have so soared above the plane of their race, is scarcely to be questioned; but, in looking back through history for traces of their existence, we should pass over all biographies of ‘the good and the great,’ while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows.”

There’s a tendency to regard our human heritage as a foregone conclusion, as if the knowledge and wisdom we enjoy today were somehow fated to prevail against bias and ignorance, rack and ruin, and recommend itself down through the ages, all to benefit the current generation. If Poe is right, we might wonder just how much has actually been squandered or squelched, never to gain form or follower, nor any purchase upon the destiny of the world. We only know what we have; no calculus can determine what or how much gets lost within and across the generations.

Our portion of the past is never secure from oblivion. Leadership material is often just that, material that made it through, that continues to live and encourage reflection and emulation. Its transmittal is rarely a foregone conclusion. When Emily Dickinson died, her sister Lavinia was in process of burning her letters (as per custom in the nineteenth century) when she came across forty hand-bound volumes of nearly 1800 handwritten poems. It’s hard to imagine Lavinia having had the heart to burn these as well, and of course she didn’t, but it’s easy to imagine them forgotten today in some New England archive, or having succumbed to mildew in the damp cellar of a descendant, or, after a few generations, ending up on the table of an Amherst yard sale. Emily Dickinson—introvert of introverts and creative thought-leader without peer—remains alive with us because of an act of love and remembrance on the part of her sister and her brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, the unlikely team who helped see her poems to publication. The rest is history, but by no means a certain one.

Leadership material is a constellation of genius, risk, chance, but above all action, as it is through shared action that leader and follower alike are united. The spirit that guides its transmittal is love, not so much in appreciation of the originator, but a love for the generations to come, a hope that you have something worth sharing. The best of what we call the humanities resides in this spirit. You can’t be dogmatic about it, nor assume the permanence of much unless you become the active medium and provide the materials that transmit intelligence. Mostly you have to remain open to surprise, even to the transvaluation of things you might have believed before. For as Fuller wrote in 1844, Nature will continue to play her tricks on all our mundane laws. “Presently she will make a female Newton and a male Syren.”

On a personal note, I’m concluding my five-year term of service with the BYU Humanities Center. I wish to thank Matt Wickman for his terrific leadership. He has an expansive, uncompromising vision for what is possible at BYU. I’ve learned so much that’s new and good, working with Matt and other colleagues who’ve involved themselves in the Center during our inaugural five years. I’m excited to see what the years ahead bring. Fuller was right; we have our female Newtons in many fields today, owing to the vision and example of leaders who laid the groundwork.  As I rotate off from the executive committee, I’ll be devoting my own energy to fulfilling the second part of Fuller’s prediction: becoming the first male Syren. Again, you have to be open to surprise; world be ready!


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1 Comment

  1. Kristine Hansen says:

    Excellent essay, Ed. I’m glad you used Fuller (outgoing and distinctly not shy) and Dickinson (shy, reclusive) as your examples. I’m sure we have overlooked or lost much from female thought leaders in the past and in the present. I’m thinking now of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose ideas were almost unforgivably overshadowed for a hundred years by the reputation that her own husband gave her with his rushed, biased, and unhelpful memoir of her.

    I’m watching and waiting and listening now to see your beautiful locks and hear your magnetic song.

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