Taking the Reins

Lately, in Indonesian universities, leadership seminars and workshops have been on the rise. Government officials, company CEOs, and other high-ranking individuals have spared many of their working hours telling college students what a leader is, the things he does, how to be one, and what an overall glorious position it is to be in. However, I always find their speeches and guidelines to be missing a few crucial facts: that being a leader isn’t fun, it isn’t an occupation rewarding enough to strive for, and that a lot of sleepless nights accompany the job. Being a leader is a bland, stressful, daunting position. 

A leader, by definition, is someone who leads a group of people. Be they families, organizations, or nations. Depicted in fiction and romanticized versions of history, –see Star Trek, Hotel Rwanda, Lincoln, and you’ll get the idea– a leader can either be the greatest thing to ever happen to a population, or a monster able to cause murder and mayhem whenever he wants to. These depictions commonly illustrate that when the leaders make a decision, they know what they’re doing; i.e. they seem to always have a plan and good reasons to back up their calls. In reality, scenarios play a bit differently from the cinematic world.

Leaders are not always the wisest, brightest, or bravest. Leaders are prone to mistakes due to the fact that they are human. Not all of their decisions come out of logical, rational thoughts, nor are each consulted with a sound moral compass. The stereotypical, fictional alphas underplay these subtle thuds from reality with the portrayal of flawed yet noble characters; the guy upstairs who make wrong decisions time and time again but always manages to fix them, and the man who is haunted by his past errors then somehow moves on from the ghosts of his past, because his people needed him. These caricatures remain fictional for a reason: they cannot and will never exist in the real world. 

Dictators the likes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao perfectly illustrate how some of their ideas are pulled out of moronic asses. Stalin deprived Russia’s economy of incentives for innovation by abolishing property rights and setting prices of public goods on his own whim, creating an economy which experienced a growth spurt but lagged behind as capitalist nations advanced through technological changes. Hitler had the bright idea to challenge not one, but two of the largest military powers of the 40s, the Americans and Russians. While Mao, once thought that if agricultural produce were grown closer together, and in more confined spaces, they would be stronger. Logic and reason were not on the side of these once powerful men, who with their idiocies incited famines, rampant diseases, revolts, and infamous slaughters. However, they did manage to rise up of the pile, and their subjects did follow their every word, making them by definition, leaders. 

Even in the possibly more moral democratic nations, leaders could fall into horrifying pits. The military generals and the president of the United States during the Second World War annihilated two purely civilian cities to end the conflict. Yes they emerged victorious, and yes this move did resolve the conflict. But what about the costs? What about all those women and children who had no say to whether or not they wanted to fight, or even if they did wish harm on the Americans? And what of the descendants of the atom bomb’s victims who can commonly be found suffering from tumors, cancers, and other radiation-related diseases? Are they simply meant to be forgotten? No, they remain a legacy of wanton destruction, a disgusting crime birthed by desperation.

And what of the drivers of revolutions? What of Che Guevara, with his face plastered on every shirt worn by the idiots who think that he is the symbol of freedom? Perhaps his own words would best show what kind of a person he actually was, 


“To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary…These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. We must create the pedagogy of The Wall!”


And thus we see the principle of a man hailed to be a hero, a leader, who marched against oppressors. To elaborate a bit on his words, his “killing machine” side was felt by farmers, politicians, the religious, basically anyone who opposed his extremist communist beliefs. This is just the mindset of one revolutionary. To add the fanatical anarchists of Mexico, Africa, and other tumulus regions would serve only to repeat the same point with different details.

We have now seen leaders who made ‘murder’ sound subtle. Would we, in their positions, make the same mistakes as well? I of course can never answer that, and can only provide a humble ‘maybe.’ The dictators, generals, presidents, revolutionaries did not intend to have their actions be seen as atrocities by their successors. They did not wish to go down in history books as committers of hate crimes or genocides. Rather, they wanted be perceived as heroes who did what needed to be done in their time to make the world a better place. I am saying all this not to defend their deeds, but to shine a light on how erroneous a person can be when it comes to enhancing the qualities of peoples’ lives. Noble goals do not ensure correctness. Neither does bravery or even logic –as shown by America’s decision to bomb two cities inhabited by civilians– ensure the best outcome for all parties involved. 

How can we be certain that we are right? We doubt ourselves and those around us doubt us as well. We question the sanity of our actions, in fear of how they might reflect on our character. Yet there are also moments when we convince ourselves that we are in the right, especially when we perceive that we are the victims of another person. In times when we are uncertain but are forced to press the big red button, all kinds of planning and contingencies could blow out the door. Pressure to make a decision, alongside a moral compass that no longer points north, are the perfect ingredients for disaster. And they are rarely talked about in the so-called leadership seminars.

A cliche uttered one too many times by my high school teachers was, “You are all born to be leaders.” Are we though? Would we make the best decisions for the people we care about? If we can do it once or twice, can we bear that responsibility for the rest of our lives? Maybe, but I can only imagine the kind of stress such a burden generates.

Perhaps it would be wise to bring my notions closer to home. Imagine if you will, that the strings you control determine the fates of your family, your friends, the men and women you see at school or work. Should you move your family into this neighborhood or that one? Which one would guarantee the safety of the people you love and cherish the most? A very close friend of yours comes to your home and consults you, if he should or should not quit his job for the sake of spending more time with his children. To be more dramatic, but not too unrealistic, picture a scene where the doctor is asking you to choose whether or not your son should undergo that 50-50 heart surgery. All the while knowing that whatever your answer might be, the person asking you would instantly say “yes.”

Although you have the well-being of your loved ones in mind, disaster could strike out from nowhere. A complication could arise during your son’s surgery, causing either a permanent disability or death. Your friend who left work now has more time to spend with his kids but his wife is struggling as the only income provider of the family. The neighbourhood you chose is relatively safe, except for that neighbour of yours whom you suspect might be a child molester. 

Now, perhaps my examples may sound humorous, particularly to those who have never had control over a family. But these types of questions do come up at some point in our lives. And when we hold the reins, it’s our job to choose to turn left or right. Sure we may ask someone else for directions, yet they could be as wrong as we are, and ultimately the way the carriage turns is up to us. The guilt, the pain, the insults that come with taking the wrong turn, that’ll be for us to bear too. 

Leadership should not be something we try our hardest to reach. It is a role that can corrupt, crush, and only rarely ennobles us. The truth that we have no control over the circumstances which governs our daily lives, hints that even when we take the seemingly rightest options, all may not go as planned. 

I do not have the rights to judge anyone’s abilities as a leader. When choices are handed to me, I usually don’t know which one is the correct one, and can only offer an educated guess. What I am trying to say is, when there is no one else qualified to lead other then yourself, then take the position. But if you doubt your own abilities, your strength in enduring errors, or knows someone who might do a better job that yourself, think twice. Some of our decisions will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Not just on the grounds that they affect us, but because it is the people around us, the ones we cannot imagine living without, that takes the form of the weight on our shoulders. And should they come tumbling down, you might not get to survive. 


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