Tag Archives: leadership

Njal’s Saga: Literature and Leadership

By Stan Pelkey

In mid-January, during the last few days my two children were home for winter break, my son and I began to watch the first season of Vikings (Michael Hirst, 2013–2018) on Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. We’d watched The Last Kingdom on BBC America in 2015, and we’re huge fans of Game of Thrones, so Vikings seemed like a promising choice, given our preferences for epic storytelling on television.

Now this post is not a review of Vikings, which I do enjoy very much. I may post such a review later. Watching the program, however, motivated me to go back to my bookshelf of medieval European literature (yes, that’s a real thing in my office at home), which I collected while working on my MA in European History, and I began reading the great Icelandic prose text, Njal’s Saga.

What began as an exercise in “how well did Hirst capture the sense of historical Viking society, culture, and attitudes?” (with some collateral “ah, there’s a bit of Tolkien!” thrown in) quickly morphed into an exploration of historical “mentalities” embedded in literature, a practice that was central to my training as a historian. And then my reading became the basis for this, my third blog post on literature and leadership.

Njal’s Saga is long enough and dense enough and has a large enough cast of characters that I may mine its riches over several posts this year. (As a comparison, think of the size and narrative style of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, rather than his The Hobbit.) What I wish to focus on first is the importance—for a leader or would-be leader—of surrounding oneself with people of good character, being willing to find common ground, and using compromise as a tool for crafting the common good.

The events of Njal’s Saga take place roughly a century after the events depicted in the first four seasons of Vikings (i.e., the late 900s rather than the 800s). The first half of the saga focuses on four significant, recurring figures: the half-brothers, Hoskuld and Hrut; and the friends Gunnar and Njal. In each of those pairings, the latter individual is a wise man with powerful spiritual gifts who serves as a trusted advisor to the former man. Hoskuld and Gunnar rise to levels of great wealth and power by exhibiting the character traits that the Saga consistently celebrates in men: strength of arms (whether one is a farmer, trader, or lawyer); shrewdness; a core even-temperedness; reliability and loyalty toward friends; and ruthlessness toward enemies. (I think one could argue that these are also the character traits of Ragnar in Vikings, at least during the first two seasons, and perhaps even more so of his eldest son, Bjorn.  Likewise, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones also demonstrate those characteristics, and one might argue that the lack of shrewdness was precisely the reason that the Stark men played the game of thrones so poorly.)

 

Hrut likewise rises to prominence and rightfully gains his place of power and influence beside his half-brother after spending time trading and fighting abroad and demonstrating those same character traits just enumerated. He’s motivated to go abroad, in part, because he is told early in the Saga that while his brother is a famous leader, he is unknown. In this way, Hrut’s rise from beneath his brother’s shadow could have been a model for the long narrative arc in Vikings in which Rollo continuously wrestles with his place and reputation in relation to his more skillful and successful brother, Ragnar.

Early in Njal’s Saga, Hoskuld’s family and Gunnar’s family are nearly swept into violent conflict. Hrut, however, urges his brother to resolve their dispute with gifts and pledges of friendship rather than by single combat, which he knows Hoskuld will lose. Hrut’s wisdom in pursuing a face-saving compromise between the two families is rewarded richly when Gunnar falls in love with Hoskuld’s daughter, Hallgerd – now widowed twice and a landowner in her own right. Through the subsequent marriage of Hallgerd and Gunnar—which Gunnar would not have contemplated but for the willingness of Hoskuld to settle their earlier dispute peacefully— the two families become bound by both promises of friendship and by blood.

In contrast to the valiant Hoskuld and Gunnar and the wise Hrut and Njal, the saga continuously introduces a cast of minor, villainous, and often short-lived male characters regularly referred to as “scoundrels.” Unlike the valiant and wise leaders, these characters are led easily into trouble; lead others into misfortunate with poor and even malicious advice; lie, even to their allies; and mouth off.

As the first of these “scoundrels” are introduced, the saga moves into a peculiar phase in which Gunnar’s family and household are, for several years, pitted against the family and household of his friend Njal. The conflict begins with an underlying jealousy between Hallgerd (Gunnar’s wife) and Bergthora (Njal’s wife), and the two women use the scoundrels in their respective husbands’ households to needle each other. Over a series of chapters, there is a cycle of tit-for-tat murders between the two families, starting with household slaves, then moving up the social scale from freemen, to minor kinsmen, and finally to close and important kinsmen. With each cycle of violence, more fighters are forced to take part in the respective revenge killings (to ensure numerical advantages for the “winning” side), until the spiraling cycles of violence and vengeance threaten to suck both households into open warfare.

With each cycle of violence, Njal and Gunnar also agree to pay appropriate compensation to each other (in keeping with Viking law) in order contain the threat of open warfare and to maintain their personal friendship. They make these decisions despite the bitterness of their wives and the seething anger of their respective collections of hot-tempered sons. Again, the leadership displayed by Njal and Gunnar is embodied first and foremost in a willingness to find an appropriate compromise that is consistent with their “institutional” policies / procedures / safeguards rather than allowing disagreements between their clichés or camps to spiral out of control – which would only benefit their mutual enemies. Real leaders are often tasked with holding the line for peace in the face of opposition from even one’s closest friends and relatives. By maintaining the common ground despite opposition within their own camps, Njal and Gunnar hold their alliance together, and after the cycles of violence subside, the two families find genuine peace and are ready to work together again to mutually protect each other from both the ravages of famine and the threats of far worse regional opponents.

This leads me to my second observation: leaders must be sure to have a close circle of confidents and advisors who are of good character themselves. Hoskuld and Gunnar have that in their primary advisors – Hrut and Njal – and Gunnar also has a brother, Kolskegg, who is valiant and trustworthy. But why are there so many men of poor character in their households? One has to assume that some of this is simply a function of the need for a certain level of man power to run their farms, manage their flocks, and look after their logging and fishing enterprises. (Of course, their presence also serves a fundamental literary function, driving the plot forward.) But it is clear from the narrative that Hoskuld, Gunnar, and Njal do not seek the advice of such men. Contrarily, their chief enemies, who are not men of noble character, do turn to the unscrupulous characters in their households for advice – which leads to terrible consequences.

Gunnar for his part goes further: his is not simply a passive avoidance of the advice of the “scoundrels” in his inner circle; Gunnar also actively urges those men to stay out of trouble and to avoid being led astray by the scheming of the jealous Hallgerd. Nevertheless, neither Gunnar nor Njal resort to micromanaging the behavior of every single person in their households. This would be impossible to do and is not the best use of any leader’s time or energy. Thus, if they cannot avoid all problems caused by the actions and decisions of the people who work for them, they are at least ready to contain the impact of the potential crises caused by those other men. That being said, even good leaders reach limits with the scoundrels in their midst, as when Hrut finally kills in single combat one scoundrel, Thjostolf, who keeps getting his niece Hallgerd into trouble with her first two husbands.

Now I’m certainly not advocating that we settle modern leadership / organizational problems by turning to violence. Far from it. But in reading this literature as a study in human ideas and behavior and of leadership ideals and ethical systems, some of which appear to have remained remarkably stable for the past millennium, we can distill several timeless prescriptions: Good leaders will minimize risks to their organization to begin with by developing cadres of folks of good character— and note, these are not simply those one most enjoys or gets along with best—who serve as primary advisors and agents. Furthermore, when conflict emerges, whether within the organization or between one’s organization and another, a good leader will seek and hold the common ground for the common good for as long as possible (which will likely be longer than most people want). But finally, a good leader must be willing to be decisive when circumstances call for it and to act to protect others in the organization from the malicious influence of “scoundrels”. The alternative is becoming trapped in a spiraling cycle of internal and external conflict and recriminations that can derail the mission of the organization and ultimately tear it apart.

 

Music Entrepreneurship at the FSU College of Music in November 2017

More “Pop Up Concerts” at FSU

November 25, 2017

Again this fall, students from my “Introduction to Music Entrepreneurship” class at the College of Music at Florida State University gave a “pop up concert” in the Strozier Library at the heart of campus. The students served on two teams that were responsible for planning and performing the music, creating marketing materials, preparing and distributing audience surveys, and producing audio and video recordings to help promote the course’s next pop up concert, which will be given on December 6 — off campus at the Wesley Foundation.

Each pop up concert is a chance to practice basic marketing strategies, project management skills, and audience development approaches, as well as to draw attention to the College and to share information about the College of Music’s upcoming events as we engage with the audience members.

 

[All photographs courtesy of Michael Kimbrough.]

Watership Down: Literature and Leadership

Literature and Leadership: Watership Down

 Stan Pelkey    

“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.

Stan Pelkey

August 25, 2016 (Tallahassee)

 

 

Professional Development: Thoughts About Life and Leadership

“Thoughts about Life and Leadership”

Stan Pelkey

I have been keeping a journal since August of 1985. Every few years, I find it instructive to read over large swaths of that material to consider what I have learned. In the past five years, having made the transition from full-time teacher to full-time academic administrator, I have filled my journal with more and more reflections on career development, leadership, and taking stock at mid-life. Here are some thoughts about life and leadership that have come into focus for me since 2010:

Keep finding ways to expand your skill set.

Do not underestimate the power of good communication.

Work to develop a “sense of the next.” In the end, the only real conflict is how will you marshal the limited resources of time and energy that you personally possess.

Get yourself organized!

There is power in cultivating the ability to understand multiple sides in an argument or situation. Work to become the colleague people trust to always be fair.

I really want to learn to be magnanimous, no matter what, and to see conflict and change as opportunities to cultivate new skills and insights.

Experience is a very important ingredient for success in the workplace, but so are intelligence, your message, and your timing. There is a lot of wisdom in the old saying, “Strike while the iron is hot.”

An academic leader will not be able to avoid the collision of faculty, staff, and administration prerogatives and perspectives. What remains, then, is to find those ways that create the best balance possible.

You are going to second guess yourself. So be it. Success does not come because the “second guessing” stops. No, success comes because you decide, again and again, day after day, to take command of yourself in every situation in which you find yourself.

“Leadership” is often just a fancy, “loaded” word for “managing relationships.” Oh, and by the way, successful leadership cannot even begin until you begin to manage yourself.

Lead from the front; build from the center.

Here are leadership traits that everyone appreciates: “was welcoming”; “was prepared”; “asked good questions”; “was honest”; “listened”; “supported.”

Develop coalitions.

Practice an ethic of hospitality.

Embrace the naysayer and find ways to reconcile your vision with his or hers.

Sometimes, the best strategy is to just get on with the day!

At least get out there! Take some risks! Get into the scrum!