Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Leadership, by Dead Poets Society

Every October I re-visit my all time favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. In part, my annual fall viewing is a trip down memory lane. In October 1997 my college friend Sean and I were thinking about calling it a night when we remembered that the next day was daylight savings. Clearly, we couldn't waste the extra hour by sleeping, so we broke out the movie he was borrowing from a friend. Even though DPS had released in the 80s, I had never seen it.

The movie first gripped me because it depicted a group of friends that reminded me of my own group of college friends. The boys in the movie, inspired by their English teacher, were trying to live counter-culturally, rebelling against the rigid conformity preached in their conservative private school. My group of friends in college had formed in large part as a reaction against our college's prevailing ambitions toward wealth and status.

In the end what has stuck with me, year after year, is a profound picture of leadership. In the movie's climactic scene, the students, reeling from a tragedy that has divided both the school in two and the boys themselves in two, make a decision between the man who is the leader in the room and the man who is a leader in their hearts.

And here's the lesson* that I have taken with me: A true leader is not someone who is appointed by the powers-that-be; a true leader is always given authority by the community that follows him. You do not become a leader just by assuming a position or by being offered a job. You can call yourself a leader, you can read all the leadership books and use all the leadership jargon, but you are not a leader until you have won the hearts of people who would follow you.

A fake leader can even get people to call him "boss" and do what he tells them to do. The tactics of the fake leader are fear, intimidation, and manipulation. If I fear losing my job or being publicly humiliated, I will do what I am told to do, for a while and to a point. But the tactics of the true leader are inspiration, compassion, and self-giving service. A true leader listens to his followers, so that he knows how he can serve them and treat them as individuals. A fake leader does not because he would risk losing his position over a person, and that status relationship is the only leverage that he has.

Leadership is not something that you can seize. You can't grab the crown and call yourself king. Even if people conform or relent at first, eventually they will see through you. But once someone had demonstrated, over time, that they are trustworthy, reliable, and out for my good, then I will call them their leader. And then I will do pretty much anything for them. 

 Leadership is always a gift that is given

*Hat tip to Kenda Dean, Princeton Seminary professor for helping me clarify these leadership lessons from DPS.