I begin with the parody of a very bad joke because, I suppose, the joke is on me. Everybody wants to talk about where the profession is headed and I have this unmistaken desire to go backwards, forty years or so, to ideas and myths of my childhood. These are thoughts about leadership and if polled when I was kid I’d have responded that the essence of leadership is courage. Yet, somehow, we in the information technology business talk a lot about leadership nowadays and courage doesn’t enter into the discussion. Why?
As has been my habit of late, I started thinking about this after watching sports, in this case it was a football game between the Boston Patriots and the San Diego Chargers, where Tom Brady, the current emblem of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” a latter day Johnny Unitas, somebody who keeps his cool in the clutch, seemingly stymied by a superior opponent, but when a crack in the armor of the opponent appears, at it did near the end of the first half and again towards the end of the game, ready and able to take advantage of the situation. It is the poise and the cool thinking that are so admired in Brady and that offered a sharp contrast to the entire San Diego team, superior in athletic ability but absent that key ingredient to sustain the win.
This notion of leadership goes way back for me, to thoughts of JFK. He was the first leader I knew, author of Profiles in Courage (I don’t believe I ever read it) and himself a hero of PT-109 (I think I saw the movie with Cliff Robertson, but I’m not sure, it’s hard to remember). What is clear to me now is the sense that Kennedy was a hero and that he was our leader and that the two ideas were tied at the hip.
And I suppose I admired the hero part all that much more because it was so alien to my own persona. Under pressure, I was not a deer in headlights, frozen and inert. I acted, often quite quickly. But the motive was pure fear and the actions came with sweat dripping down my forehead and on my palms, with a single mindedness of purpose that might be suitable if needed but that prevented recalculation and tweaking if the situation called for it. Absent was a sense of calm and any feeling that the circumstance could be overcome. The heroism comes with a sense of confidence, and it is that more than the accomplishment itself which raises the performance of others at the needed time. In contrast, I’ve found for myself that the best I can do in these type of situations is let everyone know that we’re in this together and barely hide my impatience that the rest of them don’t quite see the solution my way and don’t seem to feel the imperative for quick action.
Most important, I’ve come to dread these type of situations and try to avoid them if possible. Indeed, while I acknowledge that some stress goes with the job, I certainly do not look to find situations of stress and each time I’m in one I’m wary as to whether I have the ability to adequately negotiate the situation. I can’t put thoughts in the head of Brady, let alone a president who has been deceased for 43 years, but I’ve got the feeling that if they didn’t outright look for these opportunities they didn’t shy away from them either; there was a job that needed to be done and that was the critical thing, it was only a byproduct that doing the job was a way for them to make their mark.
Growing up in New York, where there was a daily assault on one’s abilities to navigate the environment, from the racial tension in the school, to riding the subway, to dealing with other kids picking on my younger brother at the playground, it was not hard to develop a sense of being cowed, of caving in order to survive. But there was a tonic that was offered with some frequency and Hemingway was partly responsible. This antidote was most overt in the films of Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca, of course, The African Queen, Key Largo, and Hemingway’s own To Have and Have Not.
I owe a big debt to Papa. My writing style was heavily influenced by A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls, a reportorial approach where the key to the writing is to make sure there’s accuracy in the images that are being taken in and then rendered in prose. I still try to do this, even when I’m looking inward, though I’ve moved away from the short sentence structure that was Hemingway’s trademark. On this I believe he had an insight into human understanding and a feel for the reader that we should all admire if not emulate.
Yet even with that gratitude, I feel compelled to point out that there are issues with extolling Hemingway’s notion of courage and that we’d be better off with a quiet reflection about it once in a while rather than make it an object of admiration and a target for emulation. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to short circuit the required effort, to reap the fruits that Tom Brady and JFK earned as a sidebar to their heroism and make those fruits the focus. Thus, on the stage there was the play That Championship Season (I did see this performed fairly soon after it appeared) a lesson in morality in the guise of drama demonstrating the consequences on all involved when the basis of the “success” is a lie, while in real life there was the debacle from the escalation in Viet Nam based on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The other issue with promoting Hemingway’s notion, particularly for those with the aptitude to perform courageously in certain circumstances, is that too much of the stress and pressure can utterly break the individual. Sometime in my late adolescence I read John Hersey’s The War Lover, perhaps not a great work of fiction but a story that had a significant affect on me at the time (and I must say my recollection of the story diverges from what I garnered from the online comments about the book). The Bogie characters in film that exemplified the Hemmingway ideal were all reluctant heroes, with a darker and less noble side to their personality. The title character in Hersey’s book was not reluctant and, ultimately, he goes over the deep end. The book can be seen as an indictment of the Hemingway ideal gone awry.
I thought of Hersey’s book after reading this shocking and depressing story in the Chronicle yesterday about the suicide of Denice D. Denton, former Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Academic leadership is not professional sports nor is it war, at least not in a literal sense. But it shares with the former a visibility to the public and with the latter a sense of being assaulted, particularly if there are contentious issues that remain unresolved for a period of time.
My operative personal model of heroism is that in a sprint situation any one of us can be heroes but in a longer race and particularly in a marathon, we’re lucky simply to endure. During the football game Phil Simms (my favorite “color man” since he is knowledgeable, low key, and focuses on the game at hand) commented repeatedly about Brady’s performance, particularly at times other than the last few minutes of each half, that even someone as accomplished as Brady will perform worse when under a high degree of pressure, being forced to make decision before being ready to do so. Brady faced an intense pass rush and he threw a couple of interceptions and made other poor throws largely as a consequence. So I may have to modify my views about the sprint case, where I am envisioning the individual comparatively unencumbered.
But, I fear, the biggest issue is not external pressure. It is what we do to ourselves, with our ambitions and perhaps unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish, fueled not by experience with like endeavors, but rather with a Baby Boomer sense of entitlement and need. All of us should take the Denice Denton story as a cautionary tale. The issue is in us too. We live with Hemingway’s ideal and we may very well overtly try to play the Bogie role, though internally there may very well be doubt and skepticism.
That’s a problem. And it’s no joke.