Literature and Leadership: Watership Down
“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.” (Bigwig to General Woundwort)
“The Sky Suspended,” Watership Down (First Avon Edition, 1975; p. 451)
It’s not difficult to find reflections on leaders and leadership. Northouse (2010) notes, “Bookstore shelves are filled with popular books about leaders and advice on how to be a leader” (p. 1). An extensive body of social science research on leadership also exists. And we could cast our net even more widely and consider how Western literature has reflected—explicitly or implicitly—upon human motivation, behavior, and leadership for millennia. Our collective obsession with heroes and heroic stories, evident in our mass media culture for over a century, as well as in traditional historical narratives, points to wide-spread fascination in Western society with social organization, leadership, and the exercise of power in its various forms, including referent, expert, legitimate, reward-based, and coercive power.
This is my second blog on leadership through the lens of some of the literature and media that I most love. This series of posts grows in part out of my personal vision of the humanities as a repository of collective memories and wisdom, an ongoing conversation about both abstract values and highly practical ways to think about living well and being just. This blog focuses on Hazel, the principal character in the novel Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams. I first read Watership Down when I was in sixth grade; it has remained one of my favorite books ever since. About five years ago, my daughter read Watership Down for English class, which gave us the chance to discuss the book and motivated me to re-read it.
Originally, the story of the rabbit Hazel and his companions struck me as an allegory about various forms of social organization and their influences on the values and characters of individuals. I still believe that is a meaningful way to understand the book, but during my more recent readings, I have come to view Watership Down as a brilliant portrait of highly effective and virtuous leadership. Indeed, Adamsʼs placement of quotations from European literature and philosophy at the head of each of his novel’s chapters invites consideration of the book as much more than a story about rabbits.
Hazelʼs journey is an archetypal representation of the growth from emergent to recognized and transformational leader. He begins life as an unimportant member of his warren, where legitimate or institutional power was exercised with some coercion. As he tells his brother, the mystic Fiver, “Iʼm sick and tired of it…. ʻThese are my claws, so this is my cowslip.ʼ ʻThese are my teeth, so this is my burrow.ʼ” (Adams, p. 14) Although we witness far worse forms of coercive power before the end of the novel, the point is well taken: social organizations from the very small to the very large rely heavily on rewards and punishments; in doing so, they alienate many, especially “out-group” members (in this case, smaller animals). Interestingly, despite being introduced as an outsider or “outskirter,” Hazel is also marked by Adams as different from most yearlings with words such as “shrewd” and “buoyant” from the moment he is introduced. (Adams, p. 12)
Almost immediately after their simple conversation about coercion, Fiver has a vision of the impending destruction of their warren; this unexpectedly thrusts Hazel into the first of a long series of decision-making moments around which the book’s plot takes shape. He rises to the challenge each time and steadily establishes himself as the undisputed leader of his band of breakaway rabbits.
In the very first night of flight from their home, Hazel begins to establish himself as the leader of the breakaway rabbits. First, however, he has to accept that he has talents and value, especially in the face of the arrival of the larger rabbit, Bigwig. Next, Hazel has to take the risk of exercising authority publicly for the first time in his life. He does so by ordering a group of rabbits sent to bring them back to the warren to go or be killed. Immediately after, he —and he alone—makes the decision that the group of rabbits with him must stop waiting for more (potential) mutineers and must move out. Then, during the night’s journey through a “desolate, grassless woodland,” with terrifying night-time animals all around (Adams, p. 34), Hazel takes physical risks himself in order to guide and ultimately protect the group—in short, he leads from the front. He does so again the next morning, scouting ahead on his own to find a safe place for the group to rest, then getting them safely across a large field the next night. By that point, other rabbits openly acknowledge Hazel as their leader.
Leading from the front is one of Hazel’s most significant leadership qualities. Over the course of Watership Down, he demonstrates his other. Hazel repeatedly rejects brute force and coercion as the basis of social organization and cohesion. Instead, he reveals a knack for sizing up and valuing the individual qualities and skills of the other rabbits in the coalition as it continues to expand around him. Hazel then harnesses the abilities of those best suited to solve particular problems at particular moments rather than relying on the sharpest claws or mightiest teeth. The result of this leadership strategy for the other rabbits is “buy in” to the larger vision and process charted by the coalition; for the coalition as a whole, the benefit is that skills and abilities are not lost from the group simply because they come packaged in smaller, weaker, or less popular individuals.
First and foremost, Hazel accepts the gift (and truth) of his brother’s visions. He also welcomes other smaller, more vulnerable, or less talented rabbits, recognizing that in launching out on a risky new venture, one cannot always pick and choose one’s allies. (Adams, p. 26) How many could-be-ventures – personal, cultural, business – never get off the ground because a potential leader becomes trapped into waiting for never-to-arrive ideal moments and never-to-arrive perfect participants?
Two of my favorite scenes in the early part of the book exemplify Hazel’s ability to draw upon the talents of those around him, for the good of the whole. On the first night of their journey while in the woods, Hazel realizes that the group must rest, but he also knows that they are exposed and that without something to distract them, some of the rabbits might bolt from fear. His solution is to ask Dandelion, the master storyteller in the group, to entertain them. To his credit, Dandelion realizes why Hazel makes this request and is able to work through his own fear to settle down and tell a story. As leader, Hazel catalyzes the mutual care that can occur by turning to those with skills for the moment rather than using force to push through his own agenda (e.g., moving forward). Similarly, the next day, Hazel has to put his trust in Blackberry, “the cleverest rabbit among them,” to come up with a plan to get everyone, including the small rabbits, safely across a river. (Adams, p. 45) Hazel comes to realize from this that he can regularly lean on Blackberry’s uncanny technical understanding.
What is extraordinary in terms of the overarching narrative is that these early scenes repeat themselves at the end of the book, but on much grander scales. Hazel learns from the early input and ideas of his fellow travelers and is then able to marshal their skills in even more complex ways when it matters even more. In essence, under Hazel’s guidance, the coalition becomes a learning organization.
By the end of Watership Down, Hazel is the universally respected and undisputed leader of his people, having guided the community as it created a shared vision, a common purpose, and a mutually edifying social structure. Thus it comes as no surprise when at a crucial moment, the most physically powerful rabbit in the new warren on Watership Down, Bigwig, once Hazelʼs principal rival, is willing to sacrifice himself to carry out Hazelʼs wishes, for the good of the community.
This is Hazel’s greatest victory – though not necessarily in the way you might think. It is not simply that Hazel wins out or wins over Bigwig; rather, the victory is that in having done so, he does not reject Bigwig. From early in the novel, Hazel actually learns to appreciate even Bigwig’s gifts – and not just his superior strength. Rather than rejecting him first as a potential rival and then as a vanquished one, Hazel draws Bigwig into the center of his “executive team.” Hazel the leader can then utilize Bigwig’s talents, but this decision also transforms Hazel: he comes to understand that there is a place for Bigwig’s gifts within the larger social structure that Hazel is shaping in opposition to the more coercive systems he has witnessed. By rejecting the destructive or continually bitter rivalry that could have been all too natural between them, and by coupling themselves into a tight friendship and partnership, Hazel and Bigwig achieve more together than they could ever have achieved on their own. That is the greatest victory for Hazel, as well as for Bigwig: self-mastery where it matters absolutely the most, and openness to self-transformation.
In the end, all leaders will run up against situations, obstacles, or people that they cannot win over or “master.” Given that reality, one could argue that self-mastery and openness to self-transformation are ultimately the most important character traits of leaders. There’s no guarantee that modeling such behavior or traits will inspire others toward their own self-mastery and self-transformation. But one can keep growing and continue to offer oneself to others for the good of the community.
August 25, 2016 (Tallahassee)