I’m not sure that I’ve ever been a leader for the right reasons. I mean, I’m sure that I’ve done good things while I was a leader, but I don’t think that my intentions have ever been perfectly aligned with those of a truly great leader, a Roosevelt, or a Churchill.
My first conscious memory of attempting to be a leader was in Boy Scouts, the most American activity which a young boy can find himself in. Each troop is split up into patrols, and each patrol has a Patrol Leader (PL). Over the whole troop, there’s a myriad of positions, from Senior Patrol Leader to Quartermaster to Scribe to Historian & so on. I remember being appointed a patrol leader for a weekend outing once and realizing that I rather liked it, the responsibility, the small sprinkling of power, the ability to control things just a bit more. Over those years, I held almost every position in the troop, including SPL twice.
When I got to college, the number of leadership positions available went up exponentially. Every group on campus (and despite going to a school with 2k undergraduates, there are seriously around 100 groups) had multiple leaders, each holding a modicum of power. Already prone to be over-involved at college, the promise of power vis-a-vis leadership gave me even more to do, bogging me down outside of academics.
But here’s where things start to go a bit south. The scene is a coffee shop in downtown Nashville, and I’m eating a maple/bacon donut, as that’s apparently a thing that mankind has achieved. I’m meeting with another member of the improv team that I had co-led the year before, and we’re discussing improv over the pastries and black coffee.
“You do well leading,” they said (excuse the gender-neutral they) “but you need to be more careful. You come off as a bit harsh, commanding.”
Well, yes. That’s a bit what leading is like.
The next year, I realized even more so how difficult it is to lead, and lead successfully. A constant in my mind was the thought that there were members of the team that didn’t like me, and it’s more than a little difficult to lead like this. If decision X is to be made, but half the team is one side of decision X, and the other half is on the other, then declaring any resolution on X is going to result in one group of people despising you just a little bit more than they did before. And if a month later, you have to make decision Y, and some of the people you already pissed off are on the wrong side of that decision, then you’re really in the doghouse.
Joseph Heller is famous for writing the book Catch-22 , a wild satire on American foreign policy, and warfare in general. He’s got a long quote in the novel that perfectly encapsulates the frustration I felt leading. It’s a long quote, but it’s all necessary. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” That last sentence encapsulates the whole of the book, these frustrating “catch-22’s” as they’ve been called culturally ever since. You can lead the team, but the team will then dislike you, so you won’t be able to lead the team, OR you can kiss up to everyone, try and make everyone happy, and do absolutely nothing as a leader, and not be able to lead the team at all. A rather damning vicious cycle either way.
There’s not really a way to marry these two approaches, but I did my absolute best, approaching leadership in a sort of lukewarm manner, doing my best to lead and make hard decisions, while also attempting to be friends with everyone in the same way I was prior to becoming a team captain. Even if this would have worked, the resulting mental space that I occupied was less than optimal, and I was constantly worrying whether or not I was doing the right thing.
The semester ended, and I began to prep for my first time leading a group of students to Israel, as a Fellow for the Passages program. This would be my second time in Israel, the first leading a bus of about forty students (plus three faculty members) through the land that remains holy to the three Abrahamic religions. During the preparational period of the trip, I began to experience similar problems with leadership that I had during my tenure as an improv captain. There were certain pre-trip courses that needed to be completed, and one of my many jobs was to “pester” the students who had not yet filled out their courses. This, of course, was not exactly winning me any points with these students I hadn’t met yet.
But there wasn’t anything to be done about it.
Scene: the Newark airport, having just eaten a perfectly mediocre chicken sandwich, doing some of Will Shortz’s Ken-Ken puzzles. Anna Babcox, my co-fellow, is sitting across from me, already visibly tired. I don’t know what exactly happened during our conversation (or if we even had a conversation), but I remember something along the lines of:
“Are you ready for this?” And I thought for a second and realized how I was going to lead over the next two weeks.
I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous definitions of leadership, lines straight out of a TED talk or an inspirational talk given to high school seniors, sweating in their robes during graduation. I don’t think I can really give a concrete definition, certainly not a good one, but there is one thing I’ve realized in my times as a leader, in high school, college, and during my experiences as a fellow in Israel. It’s necessary to sacrifice the self in order to lead best.
This is not to say that being a leader is about total selflessness (although there’s probably a decent amount of that in there), but an almost casual resignation to the fact that you may not always be well-liked. In a roundabout way, this leads me back to the very first paragraph of this piece: my purpose in being a leader.
Growing up in the modern world, esp the Western world, it’s easier to see leaders as powerful individuals, and often well-liked individuals. Not really thinking of politicians here, but others high up on the social ladder: actors/actresses, certain CEOs, and other celebrities. I think the biggest problem that I have as a leader is wanting to be well-liked, as I see that all around me. This isn’t always possible, sometimes the leader’s hard decisions don’t reflect well on him, maybe because it was the wrong decision, but maybe because it was the unpopular decision. I saw this play out over the trip, with Anna and myself. Several times, we had to make itinerary decisions, or decide when we would all meet, or worst of all, decide what time everyone needed to be awake and at the bus. These sorts of decisions are necessary but have the potential to be unpopular. But that’s part of being a leader.
As for the other attributes of leading, I really don’t know. I’ve known quiet leaders, loud ones. Tall, short, female, male, &c. I don’t want this to be read like one of those leadership books that you get when you graduate high school, as I seriously have no idea what I’m doing. But one thing that I have learned over my various experiences leading, is that it’s ok to not be loved by every single person. It is good enough to lead well, and hopefully, if you do this, the people who follow you will do so willingly, and won’t despise you. Unless they have to be on the bus at 7 AM, then there’s really no solution.
J. Clark Hubbard is a Passages Alumnus and a Senior English/Political Science student at Union University in Jackson, TN. He intends to pursue an M.F.A. degree in Fiction Writing after he graduates in May of 2019, and hopes to one day be published in as many forms of writing as possible. He is also quite tall.