Brilliance Has its Limits

These days America is said to have a dearth of leadership. Where are the leaders in the sciences?



As the political anecdote from the 1930s goes, Alderman Murphy looks out the window of City Hall and sees an angry crowd marching by, shouting slogans. “Ah, what a wonderful sight!” says Murphy to his aide.

The aide says, “Who are they? What do they want? Where are they going?”

“I don’t know,” says Murphy, “but I’d better get out there and lead them.”

These days America is said to have a dearth of leadership. Where are the leaders in the sciences? Designing Super Mario phone apps. Where are the leaders in the arts? At celebrity rehab. Our most renowned seat of learning, Wikipedia, is leaderless. Social movements, from Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, are leaderless too. The Republican presidential candidates can’t even lead each other in a Gallup poll for more than one news cycle. The president himself looks less like the leader of the free world than someone vying to be in its entourage. And the American businessman of greatest prominence, Warren Buffet, is leading us to higher taxes.

Lack of business leadership is, in particular, to be indicted — often literally. Where are America’s business leaders? Their lawyers were unavailable for comment.

Perhaps this dearth is what makes “leadership” such a pervasive topic, especially in business books. You cannot peek into a business book without a great splurge of words of wisdom about leadership being dumped onto your Kindle.

Of course books on leadership aren’t written by leaders. If writers were leaders, we’d be leading something other than the corporal’s guard life of a writer. Books on leadership are sometimes bylined by leaders, which means they were ghosted by writers, who at best have a command of verbiage and often not that.

There isn’t much to be learned from reading about leadership, even when the actual leader is the actual writer. What the very, very many books by Winston Churchill tell us about leadership is that leaders, between spurts of leading, have a lot of time on their hands. There are as many kinds of leaders as there are kinds of people willing to tag along. And everybody is susceptible to being guided down the garden path every once in a while, as you know if you have ever been married.

The kind of leader who is most noted in history, song and legend is the charismatic one. “I’d follow him to the gates of hell,” we say. And that’s often where we’re headed. Charisma is wonderful. Charisma is powerful. Charisma is inspiring. Hitler had it.

There is an inexplicable quality to charisma, as someone failed to tell the late Sen. Ted Kennedy when he was trying to act like his brother, President Jack. And, though charisma may be unforgettable, as a subject of inquiry, we’re better off to forget it.

A type of leader who is easier to understand, if not to emulate, is one who is The Embodiment of an Idea. But the trick is that it has to be an idea that millions of people have already. They just don’t know quite how to put it. “New Deal.” “Blood, toil, tears and sweat.” “Morning in America.

The problem with this sort of leadership is that, while it fills us with hope and purpose, it doesn’t fill us in on the details. Give Churchill, Roosevelt or Reagan something specific to run and you get Gallipoli, packing the Supreme Court and California.

The Ruthless Conniver, on the other hand, is a master of detail. He or she sticks a finger in every pie, gets a hand on every lever, knows where all the bones are buried and has the dirt on everyone. We need a squirt bottle of Purell sanitizer gel to even think about FBI Director Hoover, Nixon, LBJ, everyone in the Kremlin and your divorced spouse’s mother. These people do accomplish things. Sometimes they accomplish good things. The 1968 Civil Rights Act. But what they’re best at achieving is not a firm goal but an unleashed megalomania. Vietnam.

Ruthless Connivers give us the kind of leadership that short, skinny high school freshmen get from smartass senior boys. The guys from Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns come back from having a smoke in the school parking lot, and the American economy gets shoved in a locker.

The benign version of this is the Total Comprehender, the leader who has complete knowledge and understanding of the organization being led, from the least particulars of the company picnic sexual harassment case to the grand corporate vision of total world ring tone market domination. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg are examples. Jack Welch at G.E. is a better example. He had to compete for his leadership position. Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg were the only people at their companies who knew what the heck their companies did.

Welch was a brilliant manager and a brilliant theorist of management leadership. I got to hear him hold forth on the subject. I was master of cere-monies at a convention of beer distributors. (Sometimes there is more to a writer’s life than shuffling an iMac mouse.)

Beer distributorships are mostly German or Irish family operations, many of them in the fourth or fifth generation of ownership. Jack Welch gave the distributors a talk about his key to success at G.E. It was something to the effect of employee performance evaluation every year, the top 10 percent performers generously rewarded, the middle-performing 70 percent re-trained and re-motivated, and the bottom 20 percent fired.

Brilliance has its limits. A voice piped up in the back of the auditorium, “What if the bottom 20 percent is your brother-in-law?”

When I was growing up in the 1950s, we were subjected to prolonged and sustained attempts to instruct us in “leadership.” Scout troops, sports teams, summer camps and church youth groups proudly announced they were producing the leaders of the future. Leadership seemed to be a matter of grave importance, as though our lives depended on it. “Comanches are circling the homestead! Pa’s dead! Ma’s wounded! Somebody best show little Joey how to load the scatter gun!”

Not that there was anything this practical in the “leadership-building” experiences foisted upon us. To this day I’m baffled by what skills as a leader I was supposed to develop by tying 30 different knots, getting beaned at home plate, teaming up on the buddy system at the swimming hole with a kid who ran away and hid in the latrine and thinking up three questions to ask Jesus if he came to our church bake sale.

Now my kids are being similarly subjected to prolonged and sustained attempts to instruct them in “sensitivity.” So far no luck. They are, to parents and siblings at least, about as sensitive as a Farrelly brothers movie. The ceaseless emphasis on sensitivity does, however, produce a sort of oblivion to prejudice. As far as I can tell, my children’s generation neither notices nor cares what a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation is. That’s nice.
Ceaseless emphasis on leadership produced a sort of oblivion to authority. My generation neither noticed nor cared what the rules were. Not so nice. You remember the Sixties.

Turning everybody into a leader is impossible to do, or impossible to do well. We have proof. Let’s name the three Baby Boom presidents we’ve had so far — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — and just leave it at that.

And why do we need so much leadership anyway? In a free society where individuals have the liberty to make their own decisions and the responsibility to clean up the mess their decisions made, what are leaders there for? To hand us the broom?

Leadership has its uses — in war definitely, in business sometimes, in politics now and then. And, while “to lead from behind” is term of disparagement, it’s often really how the thing should be done. The best bosses I’ve had excelled not in bossiness but in a knack for getting people to use more talent than they knew they had.

The editor of a weekly newspaper where I once worked said, “Have serious reporters cover silly stories and silly reporters cover serious stories, and you can’t go wrong.” When New York Mafioso Crazy Joey Gallo was gunned down in 1972, my editor sent our very silly food writer to do a restaurant review of the Little Italy joint where it happened. The result was an involuntarily hilarious piece about the effect of fear on the taste of shrimp scampi. The headline: “Umberto’s Clam House — A Hit for the Whole Family.”

In my opinion, what made such bosses good leaders was mostly their willingness to hire people who would soon be better than they were. (Me not included.) But if you’re a leader surrounded by people better than you are, when you screw up (which leaders immediately do) somebody’s right there to take your place. That somebody turns out to be charismatic or The Embodiment of an Idea or a Ruthless Conniver or a Total Comprehender or, worse, all of these.

This is why America is said to have a dearth of leadership these days.


P.J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, humorist and author of many books including “Don’t Vote, It Just Encourages the Bastards,” “Eat the Rich” and “Parliament of Whores.” He was foreign editor of Rolling Stone magazine and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly.

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