The proposition was simple: was living a righteous life the smart thing to do, or was it as some believed an act of defiance? The problem tormented Albert Camus, who declared “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist”. His character Tarrou in the Plague is similarly trapped between two worlds. He aspires to be a “saint without God”. William Deresiewicz’s lecture to the West Point cadets on the subject of leadership explores the same interstice, but on a more practical level. To be a leader, Deresiewicz suggests, you must first learn to be alone. To Deresiewicz, much of what passed for leadership training consisted of teaching people to be “world class hoop jumpers.”
Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.
But was this leadership? Deresiewicz who wrote literary criticism for the Nation, suggested that it was not. The ultimate bureaucrat, he argued was very antithesis of a man alone. He was a man empty: bereft of everything except the itch to rise in the ladder he had started to climb. And to make his point the professor used scenes from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to illustrate the type. For those who are unfamiliar with the story it is narrative of Marlowe’s progress into King Leopold’s Congo, where terrible atrocities were inflicted to extract to embellish Brussels, “the sepulchral city”, where people rushed about “to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams”. And what made it all happen was The Cog, like the manager of the Central River Station.
He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.
That was a bureaucrat. To be a real leader, Deresiewicz argued, required being able to see beyond routine toward ultimate purposes. “That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.”
General Petraeus, who Deresiewicz cites for his willingness to change the strategy in Iraq, is held up as an example of a someone who could ask questions. “Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. … What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.” Here Deresiewicz sails perilously close to confusing leadership with iconoclasm’s but saves himself at the last moment by invoking final purposes. Petraeus led because he was willing to think not just “about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”
It’s a remarkable declaration by a man of the Left, all the more because his argument would apply with equal force to European Union as well as his intended object of allegory, the US Armed Forces. But why not? If all bureaucracies are in form alike, then purposes matter. Ultimately strategy acquires meaning when it is returned to it ends. We are back to Camus’ problem of God and the saints. To Tarrou’s question ‘can you can be a saint without God?’ the obvious answer is ‘only if you are content to be a bureaucratic saint, who counts all the sparrows that fall to earth whether anyone cares or not.’ The obsession with technique, which Deresiewicz correctly criticizes is only the second greatest failure in leadership theory. The bigger one is an attempting to exercise leadership a moral vacuum, in the absence of ends. The moral dimension used to be provided automatically by the underlying culture, but it has now been relegated to the backroom by the notion that all ideas and beliefs are equally worthy. They are not. The force of Petraeus’ ideas came largely from the fact that they were exerted in the direction of the right ends. He simply reminded those who had inexplicably forgotten it that empowering communities, enabling them to decide for themselves and allowing them organize against the men who came at night to kill them was not only moral, but war-winning.
The darkness at the heart of strategy comes precisely from trying to become a ‘general without ends’. The key scene in Conrad’s novel happens not when Kurtz is expiring in the blackness, but when Marlowe lies to his fiancee about his last hours. Up until that moment Marlowe allowed himself to believe that Kurtz’s fiancee was the shining secret room in the dead man’s life, the one place where the deception ended. At least, he hoped she was that sort of woman from her picture. “She struck me as beautiful–I mean she had a beautiful expression. I know that the sunlight can be made to lie too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features. She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself. But he was mistaken. She was just like the rest of them; and Marlowe was just like the rest of them. She wanted the comfort of hearing she wanted to hear about Kurtz’s final hours; and he obliged.
“‘And you admired him,’ she said. ‘It was impossible to know him and not to admire him. Was it?’
“‘He was a remarkable man,’ I said, unsteadily. Then before the appealing fixity of her gaze, that seemed to watch for more words on my lips, I went on, ‘It was impossible not to–‘
“‘Love him,’ she finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness. ‘How true! how true! But when you think that no one knew him so well as I! I had all his noble confidence. I knew him best.’
“‘You knew him best,’ I repeated. And perhaps she did. But with every word spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love. …
“‘Ah, but I believed in him more than anyone on earth–more than his own mother, more than–himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.’
“I felt like a chill grip on my chest. ‘Don’t,’ I said, in a muffled voice.
“‘Forgive me. I–I–have mourned so long in silence–in silence. . . . You were with him–to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .’
“‘To the very end,’ I said, shakily. ‘I heard his very last words. . . .’ I stopped in a fright.
“‘Repeat them,’ she said in a heart-broken tone. ‘I want–I want–something–something–to–to live with.’
“I was on the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!’
“‘His last word–to live with,’ she murmured. ‘Don’t you understand I loved him–I loved him–I loved him!’
“I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
“‘The last word he pronounced was–your name.’
Marlowe purposely failed his own test of leadership. “Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark–too dark altogether.” And if instead of justice he gave her pity; if instead of Kurtz’s ghost he gave her something of the human warmth that was conspicuously absent in that Heart of Darkness — even in that sepulchral room — was Marlowe altogether too far off the mark? The last challenge of leadership is to find a source of ends; a place from which our righteousness comes. And in that search we cannot quite trust the the soaring vision of any leader but must trust instead to common human need. That in the aggregate we can trust each other more than we can trust ourselves. In some paradoxical way the real leader must stand outside the herd yet never be above it. Only then can the darkness become a place of wonder and longing and not just a place of horror.
The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon each page
The words of love you sent me
If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you