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Heroes and villeins

Marshal Georgy Zhukov
Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Hero of the Soviet Union

Later this month I’ll join Jem Bendell and Katie Carr’s course Leading Through Collapse. Here are some pre-course reflections.

A leader helps people collaborate: identify where they want to go; find a way; and avoid or overcome obstacles.

Life’s journey

Kurt Vonnegut

The idea of a “life’s journey” is an entertaining delusion, for which Kurt Vonnegut is a useful corrective. (I recommend The Sirens of Titan.) But Vonnegut also writes in Cat’s Cradle:

Live by the soma (harmless lies) that make you happy and healthy and wealthy and kind.

Examples of best practice

After decades of corporate training programmes I thought I would be glad never again to hear the words leader and leadership.

Mismanagement and grief
We must suffer them all again — W.H. Auden

The Dawn of Everything

I don’t want people to feel they have a say, or that their suggestions will be entertained. I want us to speak up and take initiatives. But, unlike the North American First Nations people described in The Dawn of Everything, we’re raised as vassals. If there’s any leading worth doing, it’s leading out (Latin: e-ducare) of that villeinous state.

A contemporary leader to watch? Try Robina Curtin.


The above conception of leadership derives from my own experience, fitfully augmented by reading the experience of others. My life has enjoyed a combination of peace, wealth, education, mobility and freedom scarcely imaginable by humans in most times, most places.

As a strong contrast, consider the leaders the Soviet Union needed in the Great Patriotic War; the willingness of Marshal Zhukov to shed blood; his infantry’s sacrifice for homeland.

In my conception, a leader must balance the goals of the group and the wellbeing of its members. I err on the side of the members, but I’ve never been in Zhukov’s situation. (Or that of Hamas leaders today.) Vonnegut’s mockery proposed three attributes for a great leader: the last was “a genial willingness to shed blood”. I don’t know whether I have it; I hope never to find out.

North Dakota, 2.xi.23

Further reflections

(In conversation with Bob Therriault, Vancouver Island, 6.xi.23.)

The members of a mature team know each other’s capabilities, strengths and weaknesses and have learned to trust each other. This makes possible a speed and fluidity of collaboration that for the most part co-ordinates itself.

A team that has not matured is not yet able to function so efficiently. Under pressure it needs more direction by a leader, and the habit of obedience.

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