Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goals of the Leader vs. the Group

In an ideal world, the goals of a leader line up perfectly with the goals of the group he is leading. The leader and those who follow him would be in sync as they move toward the completion of these goals. But in reality this may not always be the case. For a variety of different reasons, the leader may be motivated to achieve different ends than his followers. In some instances the leader may be right and in others the group may be right. For example, the aims of an elementary school teacher are usually going to be different from the aims of a student. The teacher wants the class to follow the lesson plan attentively and learn, while the students may be more interested in goofing around. In this case we would say that the leader is right and the students need to obey.

But what about a case where right and wrong is not so clear cut? Say a wealthy CEO is feeling the pressure from his board of directors to raise the company's stock price. Although the employees may be interested in working diligently to maintain the long term health of the company, the CEO might start firing people and implementing strategies that are solely focused on the short term in order to save his job. The misalignment of goals between the two groups would surely create tension. How do those being led go about addressing this tension? And how much latitude is the leader given because of his position.

In the 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted an eye-opening study on our sheep-like tendency to obey those in perceived positions of authority. Test subjects continued to administer harmful electric shocks to what they thought were fellow participants just because some men in lab coats told them to do so. The point is that leaders can be wrong sometimes. Just because a person is a leader doesn't mean that he is always right. Those in non-leadership positions must be ready to step up and be heard when leaders start to do things like we saw in Germany in the 1930s that led up to the horrors of the Holocaust. When the goals of the leaders and the led are not in line, the followers must sometimes be ready to come forward and act.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr. writes "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to criticisms he has received from other religious leaders in the South. The leaders, which include white Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis, have condemned his actions as extremist and violence provoking. King responds by detailing the four basic steps of nonviolent action: "collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action." Since King and the other black religious leaders have already been through the first three steps, nonviolent direct action was the necessary next step. He insists that action is required to bring the issues of segregation to the forefront of society so negotiation must occur.

After defending his own actions by referencing a myriad of Christian figures who were also thought to be "extremists" in their time, King goes on to talk about the two groups in which he is sorely disappointed: the white moderate and the white Southern religious leaders. He feels that both of them are too tied to the current status quo to make any reasonable effort toward change. Interestingly, King laments that the inextricable ties between the status quo and organized religion may prevent white Christians from ever ending segregation. Finally, he ends his letter with the utmost confidence in the success of his movement when he says, "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."

Martin Luther King, Jr. finds himself in the difficult--but not unprecedented in Christianity--position of having to lead from prison. In his letter he draws the obvious connection between himself and Paul as two men who tried to head a movement without their physical presence. King's letter differs dramatically from Paul's letters, though, because Paul wrote directly to his followers, while King is writing to his critics. Although it may not represent our typical picture of leadership, King does his best to defend the actions of his fellow protestors. He gives analogies from Christian history, from the Old Testament through the 19th Century, that suggest that he and those supporting him are in the right. Although his efforts may be futile, King tries to show these other religious leaders the error of their ways and get them to join his cause. The positivity and conviction with which he writes are invaluable characteristics of any good leader.

King's letter provides a microcosm for the desegregation movement as a whole. When faced with criticism and adversity, he calmly and patiently points out the errors being made and suggests ways that these errors may be corrected. The tact and reason that he shows in his letter mirrors the nonviolent and just method of protest that he promotes. In this case, form and function go hand in hand beautifully, a fact not lost on a man like Martin Luther King, Jr. He realizes that he has an opportunity to provide an example for his people of the way he wants them to respond in the face of adversity. In a way, even though he the letter is addressed to the white religious leaders, he is actually talking to his followers. King is telling them to resist injustice peacefully and rationally, in the same way that he is.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who Leads the Leader?

This blog post won't be very long and it's going to have more questions than answers, but I want to try to tackle one question: when the leader is at his lowest, who leads the leader? Obviously it's easy for anyone to lead when things are going well for a group. A good leader can step up and take control when things are not going so well. But when the leader specifically is struggling, to whom does he turn? I see three potential options that he has. First, he could rely on the support of others within his group. Next, he could turn to someone outside of the group. Finally, he could dig down deep within himself and realize that the unit is much more important than any individual issues that he has.

The first course of action is a leader who looks to others in his group for support. On the plus side, they will know the leader well and know his situation. A person within his group could speak knowledgeably about whatever problems the leader has. On the flip side, it would be hard for the group member to give an unbiased opinion and distance himself from the situation. Also, there is probably a reason that the leader has his position and the person he would turn to does not. Whether that person is not ready to deal with the leadership role or doesn't have the necessary personality traits, the leader is the leader because he deserves to be. So maybe consulting someone who isn't quite ready for that responsibility isn't the best idea.

The next possible choice is to consult somebody outside of the group. Positively, it would be easier for this person to give an unbiased opinion of the situation than it would be for someone involved in the group. In addition, one could find a person who is a leader in a different area that would be able to identify with the struggles inherent in leadership that a non-leader might not be able to understand. Negatively, it might be hard for this outsider to understand the group dynamic in a way that would be necessary for a proper solution. While I do like this option better than the first one, I think it still leaves something to be desired.

The last option is for the leader to look down deep within himself and summon what strength he has, realizing that he is just a small part of the whole. The unit should not have to suffer because he suffers. As I mentioned above, he is the leader for a reason. And that reason is that he has the capacity to fight through hardship. Whether that hardship is at the group level or the individual level it should not matter. The biggest negative here is that the leader runs the risk of internalizing his issues to his own and his group's detriment. However, the hope is that this man should be able to overcome whatever struggles he faces, that's why we call him a leader.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Antigone and Creon's Decree

At the crux of the play Antigone is a difference in how two different people view leadership. Antigone believes that being a leader is doing what she believes is right no matter what the consequences. Conversely, Creon feels that leadership must demonstrate control. When Creon makes the decree that the body of Polynices is not to be touched, he believes it is for the good of the city. Creon assumes that forcing a traitor to the city to go unburied and rot in the sun will provide a stern warning to any dissatisfied citizens with designs on defecting. His motives for issuing the decree are purely public. Des Pres claims that it is an arbitrary act that is merely done to cement his power over the war-torn city of Thebes.

Antigone acts on strictly private motivations. She feels a sense of duty to her family and to the gods to see to it that her brother is buried. As Des Pres says, "Challenging Creon is not part of Antigone's plans." She stands in stark contrast to her sister Ismene, who fears his punishment. With two brothers dead, a father disgraced and gone, and a scared sister, Antigone has to assume the leadership role in her family. All she wants is to see her brother honored the way she feels he should be. Her act of civil disobedience is not a political one, it's a personal one.

Although these two main figures differ on how they view leadership, they do share one flaw: ignoring other possible courses of action. Des Pres makes the point that this play does not start with the same fated ending that we see in Oedipus, where the gods have already sealed his destiny. At no point in the play do we feel that it has to end up as tragically as it does. There are many instances where Creon or Antigone could have pursued different courses of action that would have eliminated the need for more loss of life. First, Antigone could have gone to Creon directly and pleaded for lenience regarding his decree. Also, she was married to his son! Surely she could have gone to Haemon to talk some sense into his father. Most obviously, Antigone did not need to try to bury Polynices a second time. Presumably after the burial rites had been completed once they did not need to be repeated. From Creon's perspective, after Antigone was arrested he could have easily pardoned her for her crime. He also could have declared that she was crazy with sadness or even reduced her punishment. But because he was so focused on his concept of leadership as a show of power and control, he could see no other options.

Antigone raises questions about civil disobedience and a sort of "natural law" that are still relevant to this day. The main lesson we can learn from the tragedy that results in the play is that nothing is inevitable. Creon and Antigone were two people with different motivations and philosophies that sucked them into a set of circumstances that seemed to lead to the deaths of three people. However, upon closer inspection we see that both people had options available to them at any time which could have dramatically changed the outcome of the play. A true leader is never blinded by emotion or sense of duty but rather maintains a keen eye for preferable alternatives.