The Wisdom of a Wanderer on Leadership and Art
"Wait . . . so you're a Christian?"
"And you're teaching this class from a Christian perspective?"
"Uh . . . yep."
"And you want us to read Nietzsche!?"
"Wh . . . ah . . . why?"
Most Christians have never read Nietzsche. My students have; I make sure of it. Most of my students are stupefied by this reading assignment, at least at first. But it always happens: something profound resonates—a fear, hope, delight, frustration, insight, argument, or word. They come to appreciate Nietzsche more than any other thinker they've thought with. And that's just what I tell them Nietzsche is: a thinker to think with. Yes, he was a confessing atheist, referred to himself as a "Wanderer" and "anti-Christ," and remarked that Jesus would have "recanted his teaching had he reached my age." Did he make some heretical remarks? Sure. Was his rhetoric rather unsettling and divisive? Indeed. Was he borderline insane and psychotic? Certainly. But the brilliant wit. The creative intelligence. The covert wisdom. My, oh, my.
I've thought with Nietzsche for over a decade and if there's one thing I've learned from reading him, it's that this guy knew the human condition and could articulate, with insight and wisdom, the intricate layers of lived experience.
You should read him. You should read him because there is a faint, but distinct aroma of him in the air we culturally breathe and having some familiarity with him might help in understanding the ethos of our culture. Indeed, there are vestiges of him all over—including here and here, to name a few. (A fun game for you and your brother to play: find the Nietzsche cameo). But more importantly, you should read him because he can teach you something. He can better you. You can think with him, whether or not he is an ally or an adversary, and you can benefit from his insight and wisdom. Grace is found in the most unlikely places, true, but so are intelligence and wisdom.
Today I was talking to a pastor-friend of mine. We were talking about leadership outside the institutional church and what it looks like for him to learn from the leadership styles and virtues of other vocations, but also to help others become better leaders through the insights he can offer. A few minutes later we found ourselves discussing TV shows. I didn't catch the irony of that until walking home later.
I don't watch that much TV. But I do tend to catch Boss, glance up at The Good Wife, and full-on indulge in the guilty pleasure of Suits. Three shows, all telling us something about leadership. As I reflected more on these shows and my conversation with my pastor-friend I realized one prominent message being communicated to me by these shows: dishonesty and deception, while tricky and potentially the seed of utter tragedy, are exhilarating and can advance your career. I have to be honest, the more I thought about it, I'm not so sure that is the kind exhilaration I want to have. And I'm not so sure it does advance my career, even assuming that advancing my career is the goal.
It's infrequent that honesty is promoted in our culture. There are occasions and glimpses. But let's be honest: they are usually a result not of conviction, but coercion. It isn't usually for the right reasons or a change of heart that we are honest, but for selfish reasons and in fear of other, more tragic consequences. We are honest in an interview because we know our vulnerability will make us attractive to the employer. We are honest in a deposition for fear of losing our job. We are honest when it personally benefits us. But if there is no need to be honest, and dishonesty may actually benefit us more in the moment, well, then, the truth can wait. We are honest when we can see the payoff. And honestly, honesty doesn't always payoff.
Or does it?
Nietzsche didn't think dishonesty was a virtue becoming of a leader. In fact, in his vision of a new "society," one of the first things he dreamt of being stricken was dishonesty. Even an egotistical Übermensch like Nietzsche could see and appreciate the destructive and painful effects of dishonesty. That's because Nietzsche saw that dishonesty gives birth to deception and nothing can be built on deception—not trust, relationships, institutions, or society. Not telling the truth or withholding important information is one thing—we can imagine scenarios of white lies and classified documents. But trying with fervour and strategy to get someone to believe the lie or see the insignificance of the information is another. It is a short step from dishonesty to deception. Neither are becoming of a leader we would want to put trust in. While there may be circumstances in which a leader is dishonest with us, and perhaps deceives us, and we continue to follow her and put our trust in her, we would not follow this leader and trust her because she is dishonest and deceptive. No one wants to follow someone they cannot trust, and no society can be found and thrive on dishonesty.
Dishonesty and deception are not effective social adhesives. They unweave the fabric required of a society. But more fundamentally, they dehumanize the other involved. They treat others as objects, means, or transactions, and they cultivate inhuman interaction.
Leaders must be honest, and it takes work to be honest.
For Nietzsche, this specifically meant that a leader would carefully pinpoint and sincerely assess her strengths and weaknesses. She would truthfully examine herself with a view to becoming aware of and acknowledging her doubts, fears, deficiencies, and failures. And she would personally face them. She would engage in a battle with her psyche by breaking down false confidence and finding security where it should be located. As he put it, it would be "cruelty turned against oneself." Being honest to herself would be, at the very least, acknowledging her needs. Being honest to others, at best, would mean divulging her needs. An honest leader would be a person who has come to terms with herself to herself and is willing to do what needs to be done for the better of others.
This may mean she needs to step aside or down and let others lead.
What Nietzsche saw was that honesty works. That it pays off. Owning up to your doubts, fears, deficiencies, and failures can be the best thing for you, your employees, your company, and society as a whole. The truth of the matter is that you may not have the concentration, stamina, determination, insight, personality, disposition, network, and dream to be in this position. You might not be the best fit for the job. By remaining in it you may be doing nothing but bringing anxiety, fear, and complacency to your life, and frustration, injury, and hopelessness to others. You may be withholding yourself and impeding others. You may flourish elsewhere. Not everyone can be a Moses—not even Moses (Numbers 20:12). But you're never going to know this unless you're first honest with yourself.
Like Nietzsche, I want to see a little more honesty in our culture and I want to see leaders who are honest. Dishonesty and deception don't really advance anything, and the seemingly enjoyable, immediate exhilaration isn't worth the future dissolution (Proverbs 16:28). Honesty not only brings freedom, tranquility, enjoyment, and confidence to my life and work, but it inspires and empowers others. I lead—actually lead—only when I am honest with myself and others about my leadership capabilities. Leaders have the opportunity to model this kind of honesty and mentor others so a culture of honesty can emerge that will benefit society as a whole. (As an aside, I think I should not that it's interesting that of all the "leaders" Nietzsche challenged to be honest, the "priests" got the brunt of it.)
Nietzsche, in his own unique way, saw leadership as an art. And he saw the artist as a unique kind of leader.
Many an artist wouldn't like hearing that and many a non-artist would find it confusing. Art is about expression, fulfillment, individuality, and freedom; it's possibly about eccentricity, but not restraint, sacrifice, support, and conventionality. Right? An ancillary motivation of the artist, let alone the primary one, cannot be to create for a purpose. His task shouldn't be understood in utilitarian terms. Right? Sure. But this doesn't mean that he isn't a leader, or that leading is fundamentally at odds with his occupation, vocation, or profession—however he understands it. And it doesn't mean that it would do him harm to have an awareness of his influence and feel some sense of responsibility toward others. In fact, I think it would it be healthy.
Nietzsche was rather critical of the artists of his day precisely for this reason. They didn't recognize their influence and the need for their influence. They weren't honest with themselves. Instead, they were motivated by en vogue avant-gardism and consumerism. They sold their souls to the "machine culture" of their day and the opinions and desires of the public. As he so eloquently put the situation: "This is the age of the masses: they grovel on their bellies before anything massive." The artist became just one more cog in the old societal machine. They were no longer "free spirits" or individuals, but members of the "herd." Nietzsche lamented this deeply. He imagined a society in which artists didn't cater, but contributed. When the artist grovels and indulges in the objectives and desires of the crowd, he squanders and betrays his unique contribution. The greatest disservice he can do himself and others is to cater.
As Nietzsche saw it, the artist instead has the opportunity to provoke, imagine, and unsettle society. By doing so, he helps it develop wit, sense, intelligence, and the possibility for new interpretations of life. He helps it in a way that the scientist or businessman or educator never could. Nietzsche thought that this contribution took a particular shape. As he saw it, the artist offers the unique contribution of surveying current circumstances, situations, and settings and helping society become aware of and able to appreciate what he called the "sober" aspects of life—death, pain, suffering, corruption, decay, strife, and confusion. Society wants to escape, avoid, forget, and mitigate these aspects. It wants to lie to itself. It wants to be dishonest about what really goes on and what we really have to experience.
The artist can uniquely draw attention to, accept, and respond to the "sober." He can be honest with himself about the reality and truth of life. And his honesty can, to a significant degree, apprentice society. Instead of encouraging escape, he can plunge us into the world that concerns us whether we want it to or not.
I agree with Nietzsche. For different reasons, of course, but I agree with him. His awareness of the artist as a leader, from the standpoint of lived experience, is spot-on. Whether or not the artist accepts this insight is beside the point. He does influence. Whether he wants to or not, he shapes expectations, hopes, interpretations, and desires. He influences attitudes, perspectives, reflections, dreams, and aspirations. (And I think Nietzsche knew exactly the reach of his influence and that is why he took them to task.) By moulding clay he is able to mould the imagination. By illustrating a picture he can orient a belief. By strumming a chord he can stir up an emotion. By leaping and executing a move he can plunge our bodies into action. Whether or not this is his intention, it happens.
But I don't think it should ideally happen accidentally or arbitrarily.
The artist can uniquely express, paint, sculpt, write, design, dance, and perform the "sober" in ways that teach us to honestly value our status as creatures, find goodness in our situation, and gratefully accept our inadequacies as gifts. He gives us a worthy song through an out-of-date microphone, a raspy voice, a broken friendship, and insightful judgment. He gives us a beautiful painting by way of an inexpensive brush, a dislocated thumb, an acquaintance with trees, and a wild imagination. He gives us a pleasing poem by way of a hand-me-down pen, blue stationary, a bad boyfriend, and regular doubt. He gives us a memorable performance by way of choppy recitals of Chopin, curled toes, parental investment, and strong expectation. He gives and can give us more of the "sober" through the "sober."
Personally, I think the artist helps us step back from the precipice of nihilism. I do. And I would say, at the risk of it sounding desperate, naive, or exaggerative, I think we need the artist more and more. The world is not going to hell in a hand basket, but there is room for concern. All artifacts seemed to be defined and valued by their commodification. Interactions and relations seemed to be oriented by transaction. The market seems to be the prototype we use to envision future endeavours and advancements. In many respects, one could say we find ourselves in a "machine culture" all over again. Then again, perhaps it never passed and has only been growing.
The art industry and interest in art is testimony to this. Less funding. Less interest. Fewer events. I've had a few close artist-friends lament the very ambiguous and precarious place of art in culture and society. Some, even, are saying it is at its end. I won't comment on that.
But what I will say is that artists have influence and have a unique contribution to lead society. And this is a "timely meditation." Their honest "reading" of the world is what helps us accept, deal with, and experience it more fully. It helps us want to lead and move forward, not reject and escape. And the honesty we expect of them is no different for any other leader. All leaders should be honest about themselves and their work; what they capable of and what they are responsible for. We need honest creations and honest contracts, honest expressions and honest expense reports. If a leader wants to lead and have people who follow, honesty is a must.
The Bible tells us dishonesty is wrong (see Exodus 20:16 and Colossians 3:9-10). But Nietzsche was wise to see that dishonesty doesn't work. And I think we are wise to ponder this insight.