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Monday, 27 March 2017

The Death of Leadership


I've attended many lectures on the subject of leadership. Almost all of them agree that the age of inspirational personal leadership has passed. War chiefs who directed their armies from the front, like Alexander, are said to have no place in our sophisticated modern age. The ideal leader today, according to the concensus amongst those con-men who choose to make a living delivering leadership seminars, is a kind of mongrel hybrid of technocrat and wetnurse.

I'm pretty certain that the current state of the western world gives this egregious quackery the lie. Inspirational leadership is more important than ever. In a world where the 'ruling class' has devolved into an insipid milieu of oddballs and eccentrics with no qualifications beyond political longevity, it's little wonder that even ersatz personalities like Trump can be seen as filling a yawning charisma gap at the top.

Regardless of what the ageing hipsters with their Venn Diagrams and anecdotal thought bubbles might have to say, the simple fact of the matter is that nobody can really get enthusiastic about following a 'competent manager'. Male or female, short, fat, thin, beautiful or hideous, what a leader needs to be is charismatic, inspiring, or both. There is no other way for an individual to push through a comprehensive agenda for the corporate good - only charisma and inspiration survive the necessary unpopular decisions and measures good leadership entails.

The Battle of Maldon is a fragmentary epic which may or may not describe a real battle under the reign of Aethelred the Unredy. I am neither qualified nor inclined to enter into the scholarly debates on the battle's date, location or participants, but what we have of the poem outlines a vision of leadership and, more importantly, of the kind of followership it inspired, that has become sadly alien in the modern world.
"Spirits must be the harder, hearts the keener, courage the greater, as our strength grows less.
Here lies our lord all hacked to pieces, a good man in the dust.
He will mourn evermore who thinks to turn back from this war-play now.
I’m an old man; I will not leave, but by the side of my lord – by such a beloved man – I intend to lie."
Such were the words said by a follower of the towering Earl Byrthnoth, an old man with a shock of white hair who, when presented with the opportunity to buy off the attack of a superior enemy, offered 'spears for your tribute, poison points and ancient swords', insisting that no marauder would so easily win his people's gold while he lived to protect their land.

It's easy to dismiss this as a piece of doomed foolhardiness from a forgotten age, and it's the tendency of leadership shonkies to do so. But I don't think we should. A good mental exercise would be to replace Byrthnoth with any one of our current leaders, and the speaker with ourselves. Unless you're very fortunate, the exercise will prove ludicrous - there really isn't any leadership worth that kind of devotion commonly existing in the world today.

Pollsters, pundits and other experts talk about 'trust deficits' and 'populism', but I think it's all much simpler than that. The idea that we are led by people who strive to be better than themselves, and who are willing to commit absolutely to right principles, is dead. And the sole reason it is dead is because we have somehow convinced ourselves that neither our current nor our future leaders need be held to this simple and essential standard. The tragedy of this is that, included in the pool of potential 'future leaders', is every single one of us.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Downside of Adventure


It was two o'clock in the morning and a couple of decades ago when I responded to an infomercial advertising Private Investigation licenses. I called the 1800 number, got sent a bunch of course materials which I filled out basically at random, and received a license. What followed was a weird and disconnected set of adventures which taught me quite a bit of unpleasant stuff about human beings.

Most of it was me turning down surveillance jobs (I have always hated surveillance), or doing 'skip traces', which is where you find an address for somebody who's skipped out on rent or debts. But every now and then you'd get a weird one. I once got commissioned to find a girl who had disappeared from her family home. I initially recommended that they call the police, but they didn't want to for some reason. I mainly took the job because they cried at me a lot, and I was young and stupid back then.

It wasn't very hard. They gave me a list of phone numbers for her friends, and a couple of calls led me to a notorious heroin dealer who was known for his habit of building a harem of underage girls. I found his address by pretending to be a customer, visited to establish that she was there, put in my expenses, and made a report. The family then re-hired me to extract her, which was yet another job I should not have taken under any circumstances, but there was more crying, so I ignored my serious qualms about the parents' continuing refusal to call the police and took their money in advance. It's not much of an excuse, but I was also behind on my rent at this time.

So, I subcontracted a couple of my largest and angriest acquaintances and we lobbed up at the house only to find that this girl would basically go along with anyone who asked her to, and that the people in the house simply didn't give a toss. After a little while, she realised we were going to her family home and completely lost her mind. Turns out she had very firm reasons for leaving home. And that was us, on the horns of a dilemma.

I'd like to say that I did something virtuous and wise, but I didn't. I was young and dumb, so after politely refusing her offer to be a live-in girlfriend for one or all of us, we gave her all the loose money we had and dropped her off outside a bar somewhere, as per her request. As for her parents, I felt justified in taking their money and never speaking to them again.

The point of this grubby, depressing little story is that a life of adventure is not exactly a grand sweet song of new experiences and zany characters. I often encounter people who express varying degrees of envy for some of the stuff I've been and done, but I wonder if they're aware of just how much I'd prefer not to have filthy memories like this one. Or how much I envy their view of humanity, untainted as it is by real-life experience of the moral repugnance and evil that lies deep in the hearts of so many of us. And I wonder, as well, how I can so enjoy exactly the same qualities when filtered through the medium of Raymond Chandler prose, but not so much when it's happening in front of me in the real world.

Which leads me to a point which might seem completely random and unrelated, but bear with me. An aspect of this not very nice episode is the problem I have with reality television. Shows like Married at First Sight, or The Bachelor, are frankly disgusting to me, largely because I never lose sight of that line between fiction and reality. The fact of shows like this is that they allow people do delight in the suffering of others, to eviscerate, condemn, and judge, all through what seems to be a filter of entertainment, but isn't. These are real people. It's irrelevant that they volunteer - this fact should actually increase our compassion for their psychological frailty, but it doesn't for most. It's just another reason to sneer at them.

And worst of all, it's dishonest. The specious veil of 'television' provides sadistic thrills for the timid, bloodless violence for the squeamish, and psychosexual horror porn for those too cowardly to face the need for such in their own minds. Of course, that's not everyone. I suspect quite a lot of viewers are just too dim or too blinkered to see these shows as anything but some kind of amateur soap opera.

Well, it's not. All comedy and drama are the enjoyment of the trauma of others at a distance. That principle being true, the only morally acceptable comedy and drama are fictional.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

At All Costs - Determination as an Absolute


It's weird, growing up with two mentalities. It's also very noticeable - one gets the sense that everybody else has a much better idea of who they are and what they think. This is obviously universal, but I suspect that it's of greater magnitude for some children of immigrants.

In the longer term, however, I think this initial dichotomy has some of the same mental advantages as bilingualism. One is forced to synthesise and rationalise across the yawning gulf between cultures, which can lead, I think, to a much better understanding of both worlds being straddled. Or, of course, to psychic self destruction, but let's try to keep it cheerful.

With that in mind, I've been thinking of one of the favourite precepts of my adolescence. It comes very much from the eastern side of my mental landscape, and even then at a bit of a remove, being yet another of the Japanese thoughts my master was so fond of.
"Even if one's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty."
This has been lodged in my head for my entire adult life, and it's only recently I've begun to properly understand it. Initially, I absorbed it mainly for its machismo value. Whenever I found myself in a workplace which required or encouraged people to put up inspirational quotes, this was my first option. In retrospect, my first option should have been to tender my resignation. In any case, my superficial understanding of the idea at the time was that one should push through, Nike Just Do It style, through any and all obstacles, gung-ho, implacable, and invincible. Unsurprisingly, this proved quite toxic, as all impossible standards tend to when they are actually taken seriously.

What I had failed to understand was the underlying acceptance implied in this concept. Printing something like this on a T-shirt or coffee mug has vaguely uber-mensch-ian overtones, but the reality couldn't be further from that kind of garbage. It's about the context of determination. When one is determined to do something, that determination exists free from consequence or contingency and, more importantly, from purpose. Performing an action after being decapitated has startlingly exact parallels with Camus' views on the Sisyphean nature of life. When once we accept the absurdity of our existence in the face of mortality, freedom and power to act can and should result.

Which has me questioning how far that initial dichotomy actually existed beyond the superficial. It's unsurprising that a modern French author and philosopher and a mediaeval warrior cult should package their ideas differently, but it's surprising (to me, at least) just how similar their ideas actually are. This leads me to wonder about this supposed difference between east and west, and whether it's not all, in the end, simply a question of packaging.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Life as a Dead Person


I remember watching an episode of Band of Brothers in which an officer, counselling a private afflicted with crippling fear, advises him to act as if he were already dead. He informs the frightened private that the disease afflicting him is not cowardice, but hope - that his lingering hope of survival is the real malignance paralysing his body. Because in many ways, hope is like oxygen. It's essential to life but, taken in excess, it becomes corrosive. Hope is the harbinger of fear, and the precursor to despair.

It's unsurprising, in a way - every culture that has a warrior and/or comitatus structure (and every major civilisation does), from the Vikings to the Saxons, the Samurai to the Wudang - has a version of this idea. On one level, it's a relatively crude way to manage fear - accepting death as not just inevitable, but as having already occurred somewhere in time, makes it impossible to conceive of actions (or inaction) to avoid it. On another level, though, it's a sophisticated tool for navigating life.

What a philosophy based on this idea removes is the anxiety and fear arising from hope. This is not to say that its adherents live lives of despair, or have an existence devoid of goals or aspirations - far from it. What is missing is that desperate emotional attachment to outcomes which is associated with a hopeful outlook. The excision of this element is, somewhat counter-intuitively, a highly effective catalyst of personal power. Put simply, it is much, much easier to strive, risk and labour, when the eventual outcome is seen as irrelevant. And the balance and calm with which these labours are conducted ironically makes it far more likely that they will be successful.

There are obvious downsides, of course. A mentality such as this takes a great deal of mental and physical discipline to maintain. There's also the fact that sound, practical goals like financial security, or personal or physical comfort, often dwindle drastically in importance. And there is the constant, if low-level irritation of being consistently misunderstood by people who believe that they are very much alive. It's an open question how important any of this is, as indeed it is questionable how important anything at all can possibly be. Nevertheless, I would argue that such a philosophy is worth considering. The freedom to act, the purity of action which can become possible, and absolute freedom from the pettier varieties of fear, all strike me as being ample recompense.