19- The Premodern Leader: Style Two. I. Preparing for the Enemy

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I. Preparing for the Enemy

In my previous two blogs I identified a premodern version of Style One Leadership. This is a way of leading that is based on the assumption that leaders are sources of great wisdom. Style One leaders in a premodern setting gain credibility by acquiring a prestigious degree from an elite college or university, or by acquiring broad and deep experience in the organization or field in which he or she is working. In the next two blogs I will describe a second leadership style that operates in a premodern social system.

This second premodern leadership style focuses on COURAGE. A person is assigned this second form of leadership because the family, clan, group or organization in which he or she lives or works is confronting a major challenge (the enemy) that is very strong (not easily conquered) and quite menacing (serious in its intention to be victorious). This person is assigned a leadership role not only because he or she has demonstrated experience as a skillful tactician and strategist against this enemy (or a similar enemy in the past), but also because he or she is brave and willing to risk his or her own welfare (even life) in order to defeat the enemy.

In the previous blog, I mentioned that Alexander the Great is a vivid personification of the first style of premodern leadership. In this blog I would propose that he also exemplifies the second style. He was truly a “courageous” leader and used much of the wisdom he had acquired as a student of Aristotle and much of his credibility as the son of Phillip of Macedonia to wage war against many enemies throughout the Mideast and Asia. Alexander apparently was physically quite impressive—as are many premodern courageous leaders. Research has shown that leaders tend to be taller than non-leaders (George Washington being an excellent example) and usually physically stronger or more skillful than other people. The original qualifications of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship illustrate this premodern focus. Recipients of the highly competitive Rhodes scholarship were to be not only academically gifted—they were also expected to be active in competitive sports. While courageous leaders are usually not actively engaged in competition against their enemy (they remain safely away from the battle zone), they should be capable of competing against the enemy.   

Training for Leadership

While premodern leadership that builds on wisdom usually comes with a prestigious education, we are more likely to find that courageous leaders receive training that prepares them to fight against the enemy. It is much harder to defeat an enemy with a carefully worded argument than to defeat an enemy with a well-fought battle. Obviously, most of the battles being fought in contemporary organizations do not require the wielding of a sword; however, we do find that the courageous leader has been taught something about tactical and strategic planning as an MBA student or as a participant in management development programs within their organization. The knowledge needed to be effective as a tactician or strategist can, apparently, be taught and there are specific planning tools and procedures that are available through management training programs. While courage can not be taught –just as wisdom is not readily acquired—there are ways in which this second type of premodern leader can prepare ahead of time for battle. It is not enough, in other words, to be a courageous warrior. One must also be a cunning warrior.

Identifying the Enemy

The key to wholehearted acceptance of and sustained support for a courageous leader resides in the identification of an enemy that is both powerful and persistent. The enemy, of course, must also be perceived as ill-intended—at least with regard to our welfare. Sometime we worry about other people with whom we relate. We also worry about other groups or organizations with which we work. We are concerned that they are not dependable or that they are foolish or incompetent. We try to avoid them, but usually do not consider them to be enemies.

What triggers the sense of “enemy”? At one level the answer to this question is obvious: someone or some group is an enemy if it is threatening—if its intentions are not honorable, if it is capable of posing a threat, and if this threat is detectable to the enemy’s opponent. At a neuropsychological level, we can say that an enemy is threatening if it triggers a strong reaction from our Amygdala (a small neuro-structure located in our mid-brain that is often identified as the seat of our emotions). Many years ago, Charles Osgood (an eminent psychologist) proposed that humans tend to categorize almost everything into three binary categories: (1) good or bad, (2) active or passive, and (3) strong or weak. Using a factor-analysis-based tool called the Semantic Differential, Osgood made a persuasive case for the impact of these three categories on the ways in which we structure our world.

Given the more recent research on the role played by the Amygdala, we might propose that it is this mid-brain neurological structure that does the categorizing of everything into these three categories. Something is viewed as threatening if it is bad (not interested in our welfare), if it is active and if it is strong. Perhaps these are also the criteria we use (via the Amygdala) in identifying an enemy. The enemy is someone or something that is bad (evil, ill-intentioned, against us) and is also strong and active. While another organization can be in opposition to us, it will probably not be very threatening if it is weak or if it is inactive. A weak enemy can readily be defeated. A passive enemy remains non-threatening as long as it is itself not provoked.

Engaging the Enemy

If an enemy does emerge, what do we do about it? Once again, the neurosciences offer an important clue. Most neurosciences for many years have suggested that human beings (like other primates) tend to react in one of three ways to threat (and the Amygdala helps to prepare the body for these three responses, through activation of the arousal/stress system). The first response is fight. Here is where the courageous leader obviously enters the picture. We mount an attack against the enemy and are led by the courageous leader.

The second response is flight. While the courageous leader would not initially seem to play an appropriate role regarding this second response, we find that courageous leaders often do play an important (if somewhat indirect) role in assisting another person, group or even entire society to escape from a very powerful enemy. At the global scale we see the emergence of great premodern leaders who have led their tribe into exile. Moses comes immediately to mind, as do the leaders of many Native American tribes who were driven into exile. There is yet another way, however, where flight leadership comes to the fore. Filmmakers produce movies of distraction during period of social unrest, while comediennes find a way to make light of the challenges that a society faces. It is not irrelevant that many filmmakers and humorists come from a background of discrimination and poverty. They know how to flee from a powerful enemy (racial bias or economic distress) and apply these flight strategies in their work as cultural leaders in a highly stressed society.

The third response if freeze. It has only recently been given sufficient attention. As several neurobiologists have noted, the human being living on the African savanna will rarely be successful in fighting against a ferocious opponent. Furthermore, as a guide in a South African game park once told me, there are very few animals that are slower than the human being. Hence, humans don’t stand much of a chance if they try to run away from their enemy. The only alternative is freeze. If we can just hide behind a tree or stand absolutely still—then maybe we won’t be detected by the enemy. Unfortunately, freeze is not very good for our body or mind. We are frightened and this triggers the neurotransmitters and hormones needed to engage in fight or flight. We are suddenly wired for action, yet decide that the best action is inaction. As a result of this freezing response, our body is boiling over but unable to dissipate the energy. We end up with ulcers, hypertension and other stress-related illnesses.

Our courageous leader doesn’t have much of a role to play when freeze is the chosen response. Furthermore, he or she is likely to experience the stress associated with inaction in a very personal manner—and probably will be even more stressed by the inaction than will other members of the group, organization or society—given expectations that the courageous leader will take action. Thus, while freeze may be the most common reaction to powerful and highly active enemies, it is least aligned with the assumptions about courageous leadership—leaving many organizations with a pervasive sense of profound disappointment in the “cowardly” inaction of their leaders. 


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