I can’t forget the scene in the aftermath of Sept. 11 where President Bush learned the second plane had hit the World Trade Center. He was on television, seated in a classroom, speaking to very young schoolchildren. An advisor entered the picture and whispered the news in the President’s ear. He looked stunned. After a second, he turned back to the children and continued talking. He didn’t know what to do.
I said: “Uh oh.” People routinely hesitate, trying to avoid bad news, hoping 1) it will go away or 2) someone else will take care of it. But this was the Leader of the Free World, being decidedly unleaderly at a time of the greatest national disaster in his presidency. It was a harbinger. He declared a war on the wrong country, which was his presidency’s second-greatest national disaster, and Katrina, his third-greatest disaster, caught him again like a deer in the headlights, staring out the window of Air Force One at the ground he should have been on.
Now, the day he leaves office, national leadership has become a disaster of its own, and Inauguration Day has approaching like a cavalry charge. Barack Obama shows signs of actually understanding leadership concepts, and if he needed any help, last week a sympathetic Greek Chorus laid out an amazing tableau of leadership on the Hudson River, in the media capital of the world, no less, so all could easily see. Leadership originates with principles, preparation and training, but on television it first shows up as instant action, and Thursday’s events were so stirring in part because instant action was arriving from all sides. Gail Collins had a great line in the Times: “. . . you may just be wondering how that rescue in the Hudson River would have gone if it had been led off by the Department of Homeland Security rather than New York Waterway’s director of ferry operations.”
It amazes me that two great subjects in the American experience – Understanding Leadership, and Reading the Media – are not required subjects in the American high school curriculum. Leadership was taught indirectly in high school: to do good things, you have to do things good, and if you succeed, people will look up to you. But my only formal exposure to leadership principles was in a long and comprehensive class in Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Okla.
Variations on these principles appear in probably hundreds of so-called “leadership” books, but I prefer them as they were presented at Fort Sill, in Army Field Manual 22-100.
They were the definitive source on national leadership, because FM 22-100 applied to the soldier’s Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States.
The first thing I remember about FM 22-100 is how it defined responsibility. A leader, or a commander, is responsible for everything his or her organization does or does not do. Simple as that. It was the “does not do” that got to me then and gets to me now, big-time, because it explains perfectly my own recent conclusion, following the headlines, that winning without principle is the saddest form of defeat, not only for the loser, but for us all.
Responsibility must have been not only the first, but the original, leadership principle, and it was inspired by the need to survive. At some point, there were the original people on this planet, and their original need was to be led through real and constant danger and primal, uninformed, fear. Somebody had to lead. Fascinating, to wonder what spark must have struck in the minds of the few individuals, within those masses, to cause them to believe they must be the ones to lead.
When the spark struck, it made a person instantly different, and distant, and everybody knew it. This person had accepted responsibility, and everybody was relieved, because they knew somebody had to do it, and now they had someone to follow.
From responsibility, the original leadership principle, other principles emerged, created by and for people as they desperately needed to be led, and the leaders responding to the need. The leader was strong and brave, but not only that, to his group, the leader seemed to understand things that they didn’t, or couldn’t. He seemed to know the land and the sky and sounds and the wind, and as he grew comfortable in his responsibilities – leaders are scared as hell, too – principles of leadership emerged.
The principles are essentially unchanged from those primitive days to these complex ones. People know a leader the instant they see one stand up to lead them. The principles, after all, were formed from the needs of the people.
Leadership principles were the first pencil marks of humanity, on the doorjamb, that measured human growth. The pencil marks are there still, can’t be erased, negotiated or litigated.
Our departing President couldn’t reach them.
I have the audacity to hope the arriving one can.