Tuesday, April 08, 2014


Another amazingly gorgeous sunny day in the Pacific NW.
I will, of course, be at my day job. I have to laugh. Well, I'll have a walk during my lunch, and sometimes I have to do stuff outside, so it won't be a total wash.

About leadership as depicted in fiction and film:

Rewatching The Hobbit always does this to me. Why are revered leaders sitting on their asses on thrones? Good, evil, doesn't matter. What exactly made their flat butts worthy of sitting in such an exalted place?

Let's ask this another way. What do good leaders do?

I have a good leader at work. If it weren't for his snappy dialogue, the look in his eyes, and the big red vest, you wouldn't necessarily peg him for the leader if you came into the store in the middle of the day. He stocks shelves and helps customers same as the rest of us. A customer interrupted him as he was answering yet another call (probably from someone needing leadership advice–he fields such calls all day–or from his boss) and he stopped and helped them. Didn't just tell them what aisle something was on. Led them to the product, asked them if he could summon additional help for them as he was on his way to answering a call. Excellent customer service, just like he drills into our heads every day. Leading by example. Working by our sides. Relentless in his mission to make us the best store in the system, and demands more of himself than his employees. This, from someone who will retire in less than two years.

Contrast that to the great orc chieftain, sitting on his ass, barking out orders. Even his ride sits on its ass when the killing of a subordinate is required. I wasn't filled with a sense of dread. I thought, this dude makes his lackeys do all the dirty work, and criticizes them when they get it wrong without any investigation whatsoever. He's got nothing. He's not a badass, he's the kind of bad manager/war cow-er-leader who gets his people killed. Why are they even following him?

The goblin king was even worse. He was comical, pathetic, lazy, self-aggrandizing ... he must have oversnacked and overslept his way to the throne somehow, because he sure didn't get there through leadership or even prowess. He fell over without a fight when he faced his enemies. I couldn't wait to get through that scene because watching that bad guy made me groan in sympathetic embarrassment for whoever designed and executed that scene. If his people had been insubordinate, if there was danger to him and he was barely holding on through bravado, I would have bought it. But no, his minions cheered on their weak, useless leader without sneers or sarcasm, and without backstabbing attempts to take advantage of enemies in their midst to finally get rid of the idiot.

Watch Band of Brothers if you want to see creative non-fiction depict a real leader. Major Dick Winters was so famously good at being a leader that despite his long years of quiet retirement and his death early in 2011, he still inspires the people he led.

One thing  The Desolation of Smaug got very right is the sense of decay, frustration, and misery that comes with bad leadership. (Can't wait to watch that part again!) The kingdom of the wood elves still has splendor–there are those that still care, and passionately–but many are self-medicating, there's the ever-present threat of insubordination, and the leader, terrified of what he sees coming, is barely holding it together. He clings to his throne because it's the only thing he has left. Without that symbol, he's got nothing to keep his people together with anymore. That's drama. That's awesome. I'll watch that all day. That's real leadership, not at its best, but compelling and real and I even sympathized with the king who is slowly, painfully losing everything he holds dear and doesn't know how to save it. And, perhaps not surprisingly if you think about it, I feared the King of the Wood Elves because I could tell how desperate he is.

How much more powerful and dangerous would the orc leader seem if he led by example, praised his troops when they did well, rewarded success, gave them working strategies and tactics to succeed when they failed to succeed on their own, and swore to avenge them when they died? He could still kill his own people, but not for failing him, no, for failing their own brethren and getting them killed through bad strategy, cowardice, etc. What makes evil leaders evil is not their thoughtless savagery. Thoughtless savages don't become leaders. Thoughtless savages need leaders to accomplish anything of any real scope beyond serial killings. Evil leaders can ramp up a sense of rabid devotion like no one else, because they can reward with things that good people would rather die than allow to exist. And evil leaders don't have to feel bad when they employ scapegoats, tap into addictive tendencies, publicly give rewards to undeserving scum to give the star players a little more motivation to prove their worthiness, betray a good soldier to establish a better one for the good of the organization, throw weak and underperforming minions under the bus, etc.

Perhaps the most painful moment in The Hobbit though, from a leadership point of view, was the telling of Thorin's history with orcs. Seriously. Stand on the edge of a cliff and brood while someone sings your praises and tells of your sorrows? Gawd, every real leader I know would be shaking their head and either insisting that it's ancient history and we've got real problems to deal with now, or they'd walk away in embarrassment. They'd protest, don't build me up to the newbie, please. Or, that's not how it happened (because from their pov they were scared spitless and not heroic at all at the battle that cost just about everyone they know their lives. Can we say survivor's guilt? Can we say, thinking over and over about what he could have done instead so that just about everyone didn't have to die that day?)

So, please, writers, get your fictional leaders off their butts and into the action. Even the bad guys. Maybe especially them, so that they don't just fall over at the climax of your big confrontation scene. Thanks!

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