An Aesthetic Appreciation of Leadership

I read something the other day that got me to thinking about the workings of perception in how we judge leaders. It got me to thinking about the power of aesthetics in our decision making.

Leadership is like beauty in this way: you know it when you see it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes something beautiful or what makes someone a successful leader. Most people don’t put much effort in puzzling it out, they just relate seeing with being. But of course many things aren’t as they seem upon close inspection. This is especially true with the qualities we ascribe to people in leadership positions. My experience tells me that a lot of people refer to people as leaders that, in my view, just don’t really make the grade. We’re quick to be taken in by what Stephen Covey called the personality ethic, whereas the leaders that most of us truly appreciate and long for embody the character ethic. Successful leadership is difficult. It requires real character strength, constant engagement, a lot of energy, and a willingness to listen…which is a quality far less present in many so called leaders of today than people realize. Believe me.

Like beauty, successful leadership has a strong aesthetic element to it and that’s what makes understanding leadership and, by the way, teaching leadership so challenging. It’s “the character” and “the quality” of something that really matters and is what ultimately succeeds with people. The aesthetic appreciation of leadership, like beautiful architecture, is felt and acquired in seeing the careful and elegant blending of force and form. Most aspiring leaders are quick to master the force, but so few seem to have the discipline and character to master the form.

Review of Alchemist of War by Alex Danchev

downloadI’m reasonably well versed in WWI and WWII history. I’ve been a dedicated reader of Sir John Keegan’s books and various other well known war historians for years, but all through the thousands of pages of history I’ve read I don’t recall seeing the name Basil Henry Liddell Hart. I first heard the name B. H. Liddell Hart while reading Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War. Greene’s discussion of Liddell Hart and the quotes Greene provided of the great strategist were very interesting and stayed with me. Liddell Hart seemed more than just a war strategist. So it was a pleasure while recently scanning the shelves of a used bookstore that I came across Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart by Alex Danchev. This biography is good, not only because its portrait is so interesting but because Danchev is so artful at the rendering.

Liddell Hart served as an officer in the first world war. His experience with the futility of trench warfare pushed him to find a better way “to ensure that if war came again there should be no repetition of the Somme and Passchendaele.” With theories like The Man in the Dark and the Expanding Torrent, Liddell Hart began his search to solve the problem of “continued impetus against defense in depth.” The problem, as the tactics of WWI showed, was once an attacking army penetrated the defensive lines (trenches) of the enemy, the attacking force quickly lost momentum as it bogged down in layers of additional defensive works. The attacking army, at this point, then occupied a salient within the enemy line. The enemy, having better communications within it’s own lines, quickly organized their reserve forces on 3 sides of the attaching armies salient and either stalled the break-through, defeated it entirely, or beat it back while inflicting heavy casualties. This would happen over and over in WWI. Successful breaks in the enemy line or “exploitations” could not be properly followed up and exploited fully. Decisive victory, hence, was illusive. The war would be a stalemate, a bloody war of attrition in the “mausoleums of mud.”

Liddell Hart would eventually develop the Indirect Approach. This theory involved the mechanization of the army, with infantry tactics playing support instead of the leading role. Liddell Hart wrote: “Of all the qualities of war it is speed which is dominant.” Celeritas, speed and swiftness, are the primary virtues of a successful army and the thinking of a successful commander. You must be able to stay ahead of your enemy in movement and decision making. WWI Infantry tactics were no match for the advances in weaponry. Weapons like the machine gun changed warfare forever and so tactics had to evolve to avoid needless slaughter and stalemate. 

The Tank would be the answer to the tactical and strategic mobility needed on the battlefield to exploit a break-through in the enemy line. The Tank would be the battleship of the battlefield. A force of heavily armored Tanks could penetrate enemy lines and quickly exploit the break-through by driving further and further into the enemy’s defenses, disrupting communications and, more importantly in Liddell Hart’s view, affecting the mind of the opposing commander. Getting to victory is more than just defeating the enemy forces. The Indirect Approach was very much an attitude of mind and a psychology more so than strictly a battlefield tactic. As Danchev writes: “The indirect approach has usually been physical, and always psychological.”

On the battlefield, the Indirect Approach is about making the enemy commander quickly come to the realization in his mind that he’s defeated. This realization of defeat would hopefully bring the battle to a quick conclusion and avoid a needless slaughter. “In other words the strategy of the Indirect Approach is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this.” As Ardant Pu Picq said: “Loss of hope rather than loss of life is what decides the issues of war.” The Indirect Approach is meant to bring the enemy commander to a quick realization that defeat is inevitable. As the battle quickly turns on the defeated commander and he sees the collapse of his defenses, the loss of communications, his mind comes to see the only option left.

The Indirect Approach would be Liddell Hart’s signature contribution to strategic theory. Like so many philosophical insights Liddell Hart saw the application of the Indirect Approach as applying to all human domains, not just warfare:

I have long come, with reflection on experience, to see that most of the fundamental military theories which I have thought out apply to the conduct of life and not merely of war — and I have learnt to apply them in my own conduct of life, e.g. the ‘man-in-the-dark,’ economy of force, the principle of ‘variability’ [flexibility], and the value of alternative objectives.

So also with the theory of the Indirect Approach, which I evolved in the realm of strategy in 1928-29, have I come gradually to perceive an ever widening application of it until I view it as something that lies at the root of practical philosophy. It is bound up with the question of the influence of thought on thought. The direct assault of new ideas sets up its own resistance, and increases the difficulty of effecting a change of outlook. Conversion is produced more easily and rapidly by the indirect approach of ideas, disarming the inherent opposition . . . Thus, reflection leads one to the conclusion that the indirect approach is a law of life in all spheres — and its fulfillment, the key to practical achievement in dealing with any problem where the human factor is predominant, and where there is room for a conflict of wills.

Whether it be in war, an argument with a friend, a discussion with your son or in the affairs of love, the Indirect Approach was a law of life that allows one who has mastered its application to overcome his opponent through adept indirect maneuvers rather than direct confrontation.

Alchemist of War is a great read. As far as I can tell it’s the only full length biography of Basil Henry Liddell Hart. Danchev does a superb job of drawing you in and holding your attention captive. At no point, in my view, did the narrative slow or become uninteresting. Danchev’s prose is entertaining for his incisive wit and verve. I found myself pulled along by my enthusiasm not only for the subject but for the enjoyment of Danchev’s style. A good biography written by a fine scribbler. 

Debts and Lessons

college classroomWe all have debts, and most of them aren’t financial either. I realized one recently while I was reading Gregory Hays’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’s ancient philosophical journal, the Meditations. Book one of the Meditations begins with a section entitled “Debts and Lessons.” In this section Marcus briefly summarizes the positive things he learned from various people in his life while growing up, and this got me to thinking about a debt I have from an earlier time in my life.

I went to college like so many high school graduates because I wanted to “get an education” and then get a job. At the time, of course, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life; most of us aren’t at that age. And I wasn’t sure exactly what getting educated really meant. So I began college by signing up for a number of general education courses at the local community college. One of the courses was Philosophy 101. At the time, I didn’t know much about philosophy and didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I did know that “Phil 101” was available and it fulfilled my general education requirements. The course description also made taking philosophy seem like a no brainer. The course catalog described the study of philosophy something like this:

The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical, and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship. Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life. — The American Philosophical Association (APA)

After reading a course description like this I was sold. It sounded like what getting educated was all about. (To this day I would say the description above is the best and most accurate way of describing the benefits of a philosophical education.) Philosophy 101 was an introductory course, but I suspect it might have been the only philosophy course some of my unsuspecting classmates completed. Philosophy isn’t easy, even at the introductory level. You have to do something a lot of people at that young age aren’t always ready to do, and that involves thinking deeply and critically. It’s mental work of the highest order. You don’t take Philosophy “for fun” or an “easy three credits.” Those who did were quickly disabused of the notion. You stayed in the class either out of genuine intellectual interest, necessity, or sheer determination. Ultimately, if you stayed and pushed yourself it was very rewarding.

The instructor was Tom Hilton. As I recall, he was relatively new to the college (As of this writing he is still teaching there.). He was a soft spoken man with an easy manner and a gentle approach to teaching. He had a genuine love for philosophy and was a natural teacher. He made the class interesting and engaged us intellectually. He made us think in ways many of us hadn’t even vaguely reckoned at that age. Using the Socratic Method, he forced us to stretch our minds—to examine, to question, to think, to learn, and most of all, to grow. The English word “education” is a derivation of the Latin verb educes, which means “to draw forth from within.” Mr. Hilton was indeed educating us, he was prodding us to engage and exercise our critical abilities. At least that’s how I felt in his class. The very best teachers are those who can get you to engage the subject and think deeply about ideas. That’s how you grow intellectually. It has the potential to change your life. It certainly had an affect on mine.

I took two more philosophy classes from Mr. Hilton. I took Philosophy 102 and a class called Practical Reasoning. Philosophy 102 covered the existentialists. It was a very interesting and very challenging intellectually. I actually still have the text book. Existentialism is very deep, it took some real effort to understand the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Buber, and Heidegger. As with all theoretical philosophy, you had to follow extended lines of reasoning and conceptual complexity. You had to sweat, mentally.  I remember being particularly fascinated by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. At first I struggled to see through the words to the ideas, but slowly the mental fog evaporated and I began to recognize (I believe) the deep meaning and genius of their work.

Practical Reasoning class was another awakening experience. Mr. Hilton taught us the structure of a good argument and how to detect a bad one. We learned basic logic and how to recognize the vast array of logical fallacies most people bring into everyday discussions and arguments. Mr. Hilton usually began the class with having individual students read articles from The Virginian Pilot newspaper. He would then lead the class in anatomizing the statements and arguments made by the author to determine if they were logically sound and, well, reasonable. The course made me realize just how illogical, and at times totally unreasonable, most of us can be in our everyday thinking; a realization that has been sadly confirmed—tragically and humorously—over and over throughout the years since. The theoretical philosophy I’d learned so far was interesting, but it was this course that really brought philosophy down to earth. All of us, every day, must navigate arguments. These arguments come in many forms, from TV commercial, to newspapers, the political discussion at lunch, to an employee’s explanation (or spin) of an event or problem. All of them are laced with arguments. By “argument” I mean attempts to persuade you. TV commercials about buying a product are, rhetorically, an argument for you to buy something. Our daily life is filled with arguments of some type, situations that require us (if we’re conscious) to reason effectively and decide.

Philosophy is a hard subject to define. In ancient Greek philosophia simply meant “a love of wisdom.” The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle philosophized on just about everything. No set of ideas or inquiry was off limits, all domains of knowledge were open to inquiry. I still see the task of philosophy as Aristotle did: a synoptic vision of reality. There’s no exact, settled modern definition of philosophy. Over the centuries philosophy bracketed into various sub disciplines and schools of thought. Look at this Wiki page and you’ll see just why philosophy was once called the “Queen of all Sciences.” Philosophy is really about everything.

After Mr. Hilton’s class I began reading philosophy on my own. I spent years reading through various works of Philosophy. I didn’t end up with a degree in philosophy if you’re wondering. My graduate and undergraduate degrees are actually in management. Both of my degree programs, however, were Liberal Arts based and did contain courses in ethics. Of course I really enjoyed those courses because the discussions centered on philosophical theories and the philosophers who constructed them. I was also fortunate in graduate school to have some very fine professors for those courses. (My hat’s off to Professors Stephen Vicchio and Christopher “Aristotle is the man” Dreisbach of Johns Hopkins University, two exceptional human beings, teachers, and mentors.)

I don’t read very much pure (or theoretical) philosophy now. The truth is, as Moses Mendelssohn once said about one of Immanuel Kant’s books, it “consumes the fluid of the nerves.” You have to be in a certain mindset for that type of reading and thinking. I’m talking primarily about epistemology and logic. I still read and enjoy the practical philosophers like Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius & Cicero, along with the many modern philosophers. Practical philosophers are generally interested in politics, ethics, society, personal development, and many other practical affairs. It’s reading that has a direct impact on my thinking. And of course my interest in philosophy naturally led me into many other areas of the humanities, especially history.

So it was Mr. Hilton, in that community college class room (circa 1987), who first sparked my interest in philosophy, ideas, and great thinkers. It hasn’t provided me with any professional status or fame, but it has shaped my perspective in many positive ways and enriched my life. It was, as Mark Twain said, a “conspicuous link” in the chain of my being and for that I’m very thankful to Tom Hilton.

Why I Blog

When I considered why I wanted to start this blog, my first thoughts were of George Orwell’s piece Why I Write. Orwell, in his trademark candor, laid out four general motives that he believed animated every writer in varying degrees. So instead of me trying to find the words to explain why I write (or blog), I’ll just let Orwell explain:

They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose.Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

All four of Orwell’s motives, in varying degrees, at different times, are what animate me to write. For example, If I had to choose I’d say aesthetic enthusiasm followed closely by historical impulse are the strongest motives in me at the moment. But maybe that’s just sheer egoism to say that.

As for political purpose, well, as Waldo Emerson said: “You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost.” Regardless of how much distance one tries to keep or how much “objectivity” one tries to maintain, It’s impossible to affirm, criticize, or comment on any public policy, debate, proposal or political figure without appearing to take sides. The best any writer can do is write what he or she feels or thinks based on their assessment of the available information at the time. In the Orwellian sense, my main political purpose is the hope that maybe something I write may alter someone’s idea about the kind of society (or way of life) we should strive for.

Lastly, there is one additional motive for writing glanced over by Orwell, and that’s about leaving something of myself behind beyond just memories and material things. So much of who we are — what we think and feel — is trapped inside our head. When we pass from this world there is nothing left but the memories of us in pictures, videos, and stories told by others. When we’re gone our material possessions are dispersed and sold off. But by writing (blogging) we can leave behind, locked in computer servers around the world long after we’re gone, our thoughts, opinions, concerns, loves, dislikes and traces of other intentional qualities that make up an important part of who we are. We may be gone physically, but our thoughts and feelings (in words) can be captured forever. The Reaper may steal us from this world, but we can leave behind for our children, grandchildren, friends, and future generations these distant echoes of our spirit to remember us by. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “Every word that you write is a blow that smites the Devil.”

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