Craig Ladwig: Leadership: The other kind


Yes, we seemed to have fallen into chaos, stumbled off a cliff even. The recent swirl around the office of Speaker of the House — a “gyre” is the new Beltway word for it — had me rethinking a decision of a couple summers back. I had chosen to play cards with some friends instead of attend a local political rally. It was the right call.

The invitation was sincere. The politician was a good man as politicians go. I was welcome to join him at a small dinner after the rally. He said he wanted to hear my ideas. Go, my friends urged, we need more informed “leadership” (a word, by the way, that should always be in scare quotes).

Now, no sane person asks someone such as myself for his opinion, someone who has been writing two editorials a day for roughly 40 years. If those opinions were once worth something, repetition has drained them of potency. My dog waits for my wife to call before it will come in for dinner.

The politician’s bit of flattery put aside, I considered other reasons that my presence might have been worthwhile. I could think of none these years later. The congressman mostly needed money, of which I had none. The nature of modern democracy being what it is, his focus was necessarily on finding the right mix of positions to attract enough support to stay in office.

That precluded any hopes I might have had for a smaller, more accountable government or a return to the country’s founding principles. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it has been for generations now. No blame.

But what did I want to change? What kind of “leadership” was I seeking? To be fair to the congressman, I couldn’t have told him. A couple of weeks ago, though, a friend sent me the answer in any essay. It was written during a similar time almost 90 years ago and first printed in the Atlantic Monthly. It is “Isaiah’s Job” by Albert Jay Nock. Please read it. Here is a link;

Nock uses as his model of “leadership” the Old Testament’s Isaiah, whose wife also may have had to call the dog. Nobody listened to him, or at least nobody in “leadership.” But a point of the essay is that there is another type of leading, one that isn’t as materially rewarding or as acclaimed but perhaps is more effective.

Think of it as a crowd (read “the masses”) going down a road with many twists and turns. It has a leader in the front who may or may not be headed in the right direction. He will need assistants to keep the travelers in line. The tradeoff is that they don’t have to worry about direction. They just have to follow the fellow who seems to know where he is going. That is the first kind of “leadership.”

The second kind takes some imagination for it is historically invisible. It is a person standing by the side of that same road holding a signboard. He may have been down the road before and his sign is pointing directions, e.g., “There’s a drop-off ahead, watch for it.” His job is to stand there with his sign whether or not anyone is actually passing at a given moment. In fact, because his vantage point is fixed, he may not have a good idea of how many people actually see the sign let alone make the right decision down the road.

And even in the best case, where people see the sign and make the right turn, gratitude or even recognition is minimal as is monetary compensation. These people have important places to go and not much time to get there. They can’t afford to go back and tell our fellow how much they appreciated his signboard, although that indeed may be the case.

So you won’t find this type of “leadership” at a Trump rally, although everyone may jump up and down, shout and have a great time. No minds are awoken, no sure course of action outlined. Back on the road, however, the detailed directions on the signboard are passed person to person, mouth to ear. It is a gradual, almost imperceptible process. Here is Nock’s caveat:

“When the historian of 2,000 years hence, or 200 years, looks over the available testimony to the quality of our civilization and tries to get any kind of clear, competent evidence concerning the substratum of right-thinking and well-doing which he knows must have been here, he will have a devil of a time finding it. When he has assembled all he can and has made even a minimum allowance for speciousness, vagueness and confusion of motive, he will sadly acknowledge that his net result is simply nothing. A remnant were here, building a substratum like coral insects; so much he knows, but he will find nothing to put him on the track of who and where and how many they were and what their work was like.”

Nonetheless, some thereby find their way avoiding the drop-offs and the wrong turns. A judge here or there makes the difficult but just ruling, an executive order is thought through and issued however unpopular, a congressional debate turns on a profound insight, and even an election or two works out as the Founders envisioned.

Again, it can take a while. — tcl

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected].

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