Keegan proposes that leadership requires theatricality:
Heroic leadership–any leadership–is, like priesthood, statesmanship, even genius, a matter of externals almost as much as of internalities. The exceptional are both shown to and hidden from the mass of humankind, revealed by artifice, presented by theatre. The theatrical impulse will be strong in the successful politician, teacher, entrepreneur, athlete, or divine, and will be both expected and reinforced by the audiences to which they perform.
This is the opposite of the modern cult of authenticity. “Revealed by artifice” is a concept we can barely even articulate now. The idea that one’s proper relationship to others could involve masking one’s deepest inner self rather than revealing (or, as often happens, projecting) it sounds, to the contemporary-casual ear, dishonest and insincere.
Keegan notes that you can’t wear someone else’s mask. Individuality and self-knowledge are part of the kind of leadership he describes. But the mask often requires putting one’s own preferences and quirks aside for the sake of a group or a goal: becoming changed by the needs of others.
…At any rate, I just wanted to muse a bit on Keegan’s insight here. The mask of command exerts pressure on the leader as well as those he leads; it challenges him and pushes him to go further than he might otherwise. It’s an ideal he strives to live up to. It’s a simplification, a cartoon, but that makes it easier to see from a distance. Leadership, because it must imagine the world as it is not, requires exaggeration of some features and suppression of others. That distortion is the mask.
Virtue ethics is the practice of wearing a mask until it sinks into the skin. That’s why C.S. Lewis’s description of the moral life as ‘dressing up like Christ’ had a lot of resonance with me, even when I was an atheist. Christians can draw from the lives of the saints, and I’ve spent plenty of time doing what someone else would do, whether that person was fictional or a friend. But I have one friend who came up with a really interesting system for doing this.
In college, two friends of mine had ended up with a fat stack of face and name flashcards for members of our debating group (they needed to know everyone’s names before they stood for office). They didn’t throw out the photos after the election. Instead, one of them had the idea of picking out a card at random and pinning it up in their common room, and his roommate followed suit. For the week the photo was up, he thought about some virtue or behavior that was a particular strength of the person on the flashcard, and then tried to cultivate that good in himself for the week. When the week ended, he’d deal himself a new card.
I really liked this system. It meant my friends didn’t just retain the names, they had to think more deeply about the people they were interacting with. It meant they could stumble on a virtue they hadn’t been thinking about, since they were picking at random from a weird group of people. Not to mention, thinking about particular people they saw day in and day out meant they were thinking about specific behaviors to emulate instead of getting stuck thinking “I should be better” as you might when dressing up like Christ. And this system helped keep them calm during political storms, since, instead of people only rising to their attention when they caused problems, they were habitually reminding themselves that there was something to cherish about these folks. (I’ve tried using the “think of a virtue this person has that I should inculcate” trick when I notice I’m particularly teed off at a friend).
In fact, while writing this post, I realize I could stand to take on this practice preemptively, instead of waiting for problems to crop up. Anyone have a good recommendation for how to sample randomly from your Facebook friends? Anyone else want to try this out with me?