Monday, November 29, 2010

An Ordinary Man

Paul Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man gives an account of a man dealing with genocide that parallels the story of Oskar Schindler. Both men use their conversational skills and bribing abilities to protect people from terrible deaths. However, Rusesabagina does not present the same moral dilemma that Oskar does. He appears to be the consummate family man, something that could not be said of Schindler. In fact, Rusesabagina even considered becoming a preacher in his young adulthood. The issue that we must deal with when examining Rusesabagina's leadership is the first person perspective from which his story is told. I don't mean to bring into question the bravery of the actions that he committed, but he does have the privilege of revising conversations to make himself appear more in control or eloquent than he actually was. Instead of having Thomas Keneally to question the actions of the protagonist, the reader in An Ordinary Man has to sift through the account and determine if and where Paul Rusesabagina may have tweaked the story somewhat. Regardless of what changes he may or may not have made after the fact, the actions of Rusesabagina saved over a thousand lives and required a truly impressive display of leadership.

Paul Rusesabagina starts his book by talking about the leadership example that his father set for him as one of the village elders looked to for settling disputes. From an early age, Paul saw some of the attributes that are necessary for a respected leader: wisdom, honesty, and fairness. Originally, he thought that the best way to incorporate these leadership skills into his life would be to become a pastor. After a couple years in seminary Rusesabagina decided that it was not for him. However, looking back now he feels that his time spent following that dream was far from wasted. His understanding of religion helped him to understand people's motivations for their actions better and his ability to speak extemporaneously helped him to handle the many difficult conversations he had during the genocide.

Rusesabagina believes that his ability to lead stems directly from his ability to speak: "Today I am convinced that the only thing that saved those 1,268 people in my hotel was words." Like Schindler, he was adept at starting a conversation over some drinks and not letting it end until he got what he wanted. He was able to successfully negotiate with anyone from blood-thirsty teenage militia members to high-ranking army generals. In addition to dealing with outside threats, Rusesabagina also had to manage the tensions that arise from an over-crowded hotel rationing its food and water while fearing imminent militia raids. To keep these people living together without incident for three months was a minor miracle of leadership in and of itself.

The first episode that takes place when he returns to the hotel after the killings start gives us an example of how he establishes control. One of the workers at the reception desk got the master keys when the manager flew back to Belgium. The worker was living in the manager's suite with his girlfriend, an unnecessary waste of space at the time. Paul went up to the man and asked if he knew where the keys were, knowing full well that the man had them. For an answer, Paul was given what he calls the Rwandan no. Rusesabagina immediately called the company that owns the hotel for their support. Once it was given, he returned to the renegade worker and demanded the keys back. He also gave the man two options for his living arrangements: either he and his girlfriend could move into a smaller room or expect some new roommates. The message was sent loud and clear that Paul Rusesabagina was in charge of the Mille Collines and wouldn't deal with people who rejected that authority.

In the face of unspeakable atrocities and violence, Paul Rusesabagina used his words to save over a thousand lives. His leadership maintained order within the hotel and prevented violence from breaching the walls. The story gives a shining example of how much can be accomplished without ever firing a shot. His biggest fear going forward is the lack of leadership shown by the UN and the Rwandan government throughout the crisis. If that persists, he suspects that history may repeat itself in his home country.

1 comment:

  1. One of the great lessons here, surely, is that connection between ability to lead and ability to speak. Not just to speak articulately and persuasively but to speak (as in: speak out) at the right moment, and not to be silent at the wrong moment. It’s interesting that later in this entry you returned to a form of the word – “unspeakable” as in “unspeakable atrocities.” There’s a close tie between those two seemingly difference senses of the term. But, again, I agree about the importance of “conversational skills and bribing abilities,” even though bribery is almost always seen as unleaderly. Let’s perhaps just use the word “strategic.” I’m glad of course that you were sensitive to distortions of the narrative. Crucial.