Ramblings & ephemera

David Foster Wallace on leadership

From David Foster Wallace’s “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain” (Rolling Stone: 13 April 2000):

The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to think is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a Scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Lincoln was, by all available evidence, a real leader, and Churchill, and Gandhi, and King. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and de Gaulle, and certainly Marshall and maybe Eisenhower. (Of course Hitler was a real leader too, a very powerful one, so you have to watch out; all it is is a weird kind of power.)

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem real obvious. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. Because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is his own self-interest. If you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying really is in your interest (and it really might be) — still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful … although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to enough great salesmen and salespitches and marketing concepts for long enough — like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say — it is only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a shit about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

Yes, this is simplistic. All politicians sell, always have. FDR and JFK and MLK and Gandhi were great salesmen. But that’s not all they were. People could smell it. That weird little extra something. It had to do with “character” (which, yes, is also a cliché — suck it up).

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