The Charisma of Leaders
“The leaders always had good consciences, for conscience in them coalesced with will, and those who looked on their face were as much smitten with wonder at their freedom from inner restraint as with awe at the energy of their outward performances.”
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identifies the union of conscience and will in leaders as one of their defining attributes. By conscience he means their values, their morality, their meaning-systems; and by will he means their volition, their drive, their constant, daily intentionality. Thus: their actions are in accord with their ideals. Their desires constantly reflect their beliefs.
For most of us, this is not so: there is a frustrating gap between them, such that we’re not in accord with our own values, no matter how badly we wish to be. Our moral commitments are overwhelmed routinely, and our behavior subverts, distracts, and disappoints us. Perhaps we accept a remunerative job rather than dedicating our lives to what we feel is most important; or we pursue the important, but we get sleepy and head home from the office earlier than we suspect we should; we call in sick when we’re perfectly well; or we come to feel that our calling isn’t so important as we thought. We have doubts and waste time; we crave freedom and idle time, but regret our lack of purpose. We are not as dedicated in friendship as we aspire to be; we grow irritated by what we know is superficial, meaningless; and so on ad nauseum. Because this is one of the defining qualities of human life, examples abound and more are likely unneeded.
James says that for “leaders,” this is not so; and more importantly, because it is not so, we are “as much smitten with wonder at their freedom from inner restraint as with awe at the energy of their outward performances.”
The Steve Jobs Myths
No one who has read about Steve Jobs can escape a certain sense of perplexity concerning him. A figure praised as brilliant, profound, and revolutionary, someone who purportedly saw deeply into the mysteries of creativity and human life, and who was unquestionably responsible for a great deal of innovation, was also prone to facile irrationality, appallingly abusive and callow behavior, the dullest sorts of homilies, and seeming shallowness about his own attributes and habits.
Show a video of or read a passage about the man who absurdly concluded his commencement speech at Stanford with ”stay hungry, stay foolish” —a hackneyed Hallmark phrase that might as well be printed on a motivational poster outside of Steve Ballmer’s office— to someone not already indoctrinated, and their reaction will surprise you. His pinched voice droning on with quite-typical businessman phrases; his endless references to the most ordinary pop-art, from The Beatles to U2 to John Mayer; his casually superficial understanding of the spirituality he ostensibly sought during various phases of his life; his fruitarian diets and basic scientific ignorance, suggestive of a narcissistic mysticism: these will all fail to impress an ordinary person. As with Apple’s often-cited but never-achieved marketing perfection, the myth obscures the truth. The "Reality Distortion Field" does not seem to work except on people for whom its existence is already a given, or for people who knew him in real life.
People who knew him, notably, often report a total awe at the power of his personality and mind, a power that overwhelmed them, catalyzed some of their greatest creativity and effort, inspired them them with its focus and its capacity to find the point, the consequence, the animating vision in any effort. There is no question that Jobs was a rare sort of individual, one whom I credit with dramatically improving human access to creativity-supporting computation (among other feats that matter to me a great deal). But there is reason to wonder: in what did his greatness consist?
(Walter Isaacson’s wasteful biography is hardly helpful here, incidentally. It is a mere recounting of interviews, none well-contextualized or examined satisfactorily. It reads like an endless Time article).
A Unity of Conscience and Will
What Jobs was was indefatigable, convinced of the rightness of his pursuits —whatever they happened to be at any given time— and always in possession of a unified conscience and will. Whether flattering or cajoling a partner, denying his responsibility for his daughter, steering a company or a project, humiliating a subordinate, driving designers and engineers to democratize the “bicycle for the mind” so that computation and software could transform lives around the world, or renovating his house, he was, as they say, “single-minded,” and he never seems to have suffered from distance between his values and his actions. He believed in what he did, and was perfectly content to do whatever it took to achieve his ends. It is hard to imagine Jobs haunted by regrets, ruing this or that interpersonal cruelty; moreover, one can imagine how he might justify not regretting his misdeed, deploying a worn California aphorism like “I believe in not looking back.”
Many are willing to behave this way, of course; any number of startup CEOs take adolescent pride in aping Jobs, driving their employees to long hours, performing a sham mercuriality, pushing themselves far past psychological health in order to show just how dedicated they are. Rare is the CEO for whom this produces better results, however, than he or she would have attained with ordinary management methods.
Perhaps this is because for them, it is an act: it is an adopted methodology selected in order to assure whatever the CEO’s goals are, whether they entail wealth or the esteem of peers or conformity to the heroic paradigm he or she most admires. That is to say: there is for him or her the typical chasm between conscience and will, and as social animals, we register their confusion as we register our own. And what we seek in leaders is confidence, not confusion.
For Jobs, while there were surely elements of performance —as there have been with history’s greatest leaders, tyrants and heroes alike— there was at core an iron unity of purpose and practice. This may have been the source of the charisma for which he is famous —which is emphatically not due to the reasons most typically cited— and it is also, as James notes, related to his “energy of…outward performance…” If you really believe in what you do —and Jobs seemed to believe in whatever he did, as a function of personality— you do not tire until your body is overcome. And Jobs, as is well known, pushed himself and others to exhaustion, to mental fragility, to breakdown.
Morality and Praxis
James does not explain why this kind of unity is so magnetic, so charismatic, but his broader discussion of various types of persons imply that it may have something to do with the perennial problem of human meaning: the confrontation between morality —which tends to be ideal— and praxis, in which innumerable considerations problematize and overwhelm us.
There are two exemplary solutions to this problem in human history, opposed to the third path most of us take: muddling through and bargaining in internal monologues about what we ought to be while compromising constantly:
- "Saints," who decide to live in accordance with religious values no matter the cost; for example, believing that money is both meaningless and corrupting, they vow poverty, and fall from society.
- "Leaders," who live in accordance with their own values, or values of some community that is worldly in its intentions, such that they do not drop from society but seek to instantiate their values in it.
In an age in which religious values are, even by the religious, not considered sufficient for a turn from society —an age of “the cross in the ballpark,” as Paul Simon says, of churches that promise “the rich life,” of believers who look in disgust at the instantiation of their religions’ values— the leader emerges as our most prominent solution to the problem of meaning. She is the embodiment of values and an agent of their transformative influence on the world. She has the energy of purpose, the dedication of the saint but remains within the world, and sometimes improves it.
The value or articulation of the ideas, it is appropriate to mention, is less important than we might think; in the case of Jobs, it is not crucial that he had a system of philosophy that charted the place of design in problem-solving, problem-solving in human advancement, human-advancement in a moral context. Indeed, we might leave that to others entirely, others who write about such things rather than living each moment driving themselves and others to achieve them.
The toll leaders take is fearsome, but we admire them for using us up: better to be used, after all, than useless. This is why those who worked for Jobs so often cannot even begin to justify how he reduced so-and-so to tears, how he stole this or that bit of credit, how he crushed a former friend whom in his paranoia he suspected of disloyalty, and they scarcely care. What we admire about saints and leaders is not solely the values they exemplify but the totality with which they exemplify them, a totality alien to all of us whose lives are balanced between poles of conformity and dedication, commitment and restlessness.
Jobs himself understood the necessity of unifying conscience and will, but his words are no more capable of transforming us than an athlete’s post-game interview is of giving us physical talent:
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking. Don’t settle.
For most of us, settling is an inevitability, not because of insufficient exposure to these bland admonishments but because, unlike Jobs, we do not know what great work really is —we lack confidence in any system of values or ideals; we cannot give ourselves wholly over to anything without doubt; we cannot have faith, and utter dedication seems faintly ludicrous— or we cannot decide how much of ourselves or others we are willing to sacrifice. We want love and labor, freedom and meaning, flexibility and commitment. One has the strong sense that Jobs had no issue whatever with the idea of total, monomaniacal devotion to his cause, whatever that cause happened to be at any moment, whatever it demanded at any point of decision, however it was later judged. This is a kind of selfishness, too; it can hurt many people, and one cannot be assured that one is doing the right thing, since one might receive no signal from one’s family or peers that one’s dedication is sound, fruitful, worthwhile; for years of Jobs’ life, he did not. And of course: one might be wrong, and others might be misled, and one might immolate one’s life in error. There is no shortage of historical figures of whom we can say that such was the case.
When I read about Jobs, I am reminded far more of someone like Vince Lombardi than I am of any glamorous startup icon. Whether their monomania was “worth it” is of course a matter of whom you ask, and when. But imitating it is not useful; it is not a question of style or aesthetics of even ethics; monomania isn’t a process but a near-pathology, something that infests the mind, even as it brings it into accord with itself. Jobs seems to suggest that one should search for what infects one with it, and perhaps he was right, for while it is it is a dubious blessing, it is nevertheless one for which the world must often admit gratitude. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” What is more reminiscent of Jobs than the unreasonable demand which despite the protests of all is satisfied, and which thereby improves the world?
That there is a tension between reasonableness and progress seems hard to accept, but it is also precisely the sort of befuddling dilemma that one encounters again and again in reading about Jobs: was it necessary for him to be cruel to be successful? Did he have to savage so-and-so in order to ship such-and-such? If he was such a man of taste, why were his artistic interests so undeveloped? Not only do I have no idea, it is obvious that among those who worked with him there is no sense of certainty either. This seems to me to reflect, in part, a simple fact: Jobs’ values are not common values, and even among those of us who admire him, his indifference to the feelings of others, even those who loved and needed him, is hard to accept. Jobs himself —like many leaders— seems impossible to resolve; there is no chatty, confessional “inner self” to be located in his words or books about him; one has the sense that no one ever got “inside him,” perhaps because “inside” is where the failed self resides, the self that falls short of its conscience, and Jobs simply didn’t have that sort of mind.
James’ formulation at least seems to bring us closer to understanding one component of his formula, however. His charisma —an enormous part of his ability to motivate and drive progress— was not due to any special intelligence, education, talent, or charm as we typically conceive of them, but due to something else: a conscience and a will unified with one another. To see a person for whom life is an instantiation of meaning, whose will reflects only their values, inspires us; it is meaning in action, the former province of religion, and it has a mysterious force over us that, despite our rational objections, turns us into “the faithful.”
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