There is a pernicious virus afoot, where every great personality has to be undermined because they were a product of their times, or were not enlightened from head to toe, or hadn’t fully scaled the peaks of human perfection.
It’s a dud and a bore. No one is really interested in such “perfection.” It is simply fear’s understudy. We cling to the illusion of “perfectibility” as it lends itself to self-righteous bloviating decoupled from reality or responsibility. To assess this, let’s just a take a random tour of some fairly sturdy candidates for greatness.
A remarkable figure. First, he led his country through the Revolutionary War. He defused a potential military uprising due to resentment about military back pay and other odious slights from Congress. He completely refused all suggestions of a kingship he could readily likely have claimed (to the utter bafflement of European royalty who admitted that there was virtually no historical precedent for someone being able to claim power that was being showered upon them, and refusing on principle). He agreed, upon being zealously petitioned, to unite the country as President, bringing on a true “team of rivals” in giants like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. He voluntarily stepped down after two terms to set a precedent (there was no Constitutional requirement to do so at that time). Throughout his tenure everything he did became a precedent. Often stung by media attacks, he was pressed to “contain” some of their extreme statements, and refused, understanding the slippery slope that would establish. He would cringe looking at recent episodes from YouTube to key newspapers to Amazon.
He ensured power was peacefully passed on, and that the distinction between the civilian and the military was preserved by a true “Commander in Chief.” It was and is a remarkable achievement -- literally to first exemplify the winning of freedom and then virtually embodying the Republic.
A typical taunt is he did not free his slaves while alive and was not at the leading edge of that sensibility. There are excuses that could be proffered, including pointing out that he was literally the only person South and North would have endowed with what they feared were potentially tyrannical powers in an Executive branch -- because he was from the South, and yet was trusted in the North for his personal stature and apolitical commitment to the country he had helped midwife into being. As such, his taking such a public stance, on so flammable an area of contention, would likely have unraveled everything before it started.
But leave it all aside and let’s just admit, we are not studying Washington (or Jefferson or many of the others) as paragons of race relations, emancipation, or in fact women’s rights, universal suffrage or many other things that needed to develop. There are other giants we can study on those fronts.
But we can unabashedly and categorically admire Washington for being larger than self-interest, for his ability to mobilize and rally and lead, and for his stunning personal example as both Commander in Chief and President. And we can forgive him perhaps being a product of his time and geography and for human follies and peccadillos. Or perhaps that doesn’t need “forgiveness” as he didn’t campaign, nor are we studying him, as a litmus test for some transcendent example of humanity across the entire continuum.
But we have not seen leadership of that caliber very often. Washington and the other Founding Fathers also had the wisdom to give us a corrigible document in the Constitution, that could allow their own beliefs and temporal priorities to be transcended, overruled and evolved beyond. That is a magnificent example of both leadership vision and humility.
The recent defacing of his statue during the George Floyd protests brings this front and center. I remember years ago, dining with the Vice-Master of my old Oxford college, the Chaplain, and one of our most insightful History dons from the College. And I remember this historian, eyes getting slightly misty as we discussed it, saying,
“Ah Winnie (Churchill, not the Pooh), take him all in all, and he was anachronistic in some ways, possibly racist when you look at the India policy, personally tormented by demons for sure. But when it mattered, when it was all on the line, when it was literally existential…he told us who we were, and we believed him. And that meant everything.”
What a magnificent summary. “He told us who we were.” President Kennedy later lionized Winston Churchill for mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle. Well, it was possible not just due to his being an exceptional wordsmith, but because he embodied what he said. He was not cowed, he loathed fascism even more than communism, and he fully believed we were fighting for the future not just of a country or an empire, but western civilization. And he provided the credibility that FDR sought, to enable the United States to provide extra-legal assistance through mechanisms like “Lend Lease” until, provoked by Pearl Harbor, they could fully enter the conflict.
Churchill’s prescience relative to the Iron Curtain post war, his ability to befriend other giants like Eisenhower who were cut from a very different cloth, his personal valor, and his ability to enlarge a war into a cause people would rise above themselves for, with his majestic words ringing in their ears and hearts, made him an indispensable leader for those remarkable times.
Need we study him and admire him as an exemplar of race relations, marital balance, raising children, having empathy with different cultures and races? I would suggest we don’t. Nor did he hold himself out in that way, nor has any Churchill admirer thought to forge policies on the basis of studying a great man’s blind spots, blinkers and limitations. He is allowed surely to be human, even catastrophically so at times.
But we admire and revere his rising above any caricature, to inhabit an office, to fill it with an unconquerable fighting spirit, and to focus everyone on what they were seeking to be free “for” and not just free “from.” That is surely more than enough, and we can let the rest be.
George Bernard Shaw
My rather eclectic collection of luminaries comes to a contemporary of Churchill’s. “GBS” created a personality, fashioned a “brand” out of his quirks. He rallied his Irish wits to revolutionize the staid theater of the times into a real theater of ideas. He dueled with Shakespearean orthodoxy, championed Ibsen, horrified the world by holding up a moral mirror to our hypocrisies, wrote with such rollicking humorous brilliance that you could hardly turn a deaf ear (try as you might), and won both an Oscar (to his chagrin for a Hollywood rendition of Pygmalion that changed his coveted ending) and a Nobel Prize for his remarkable play St. Joan, which he refused to go collect, asking that the award money be distributed to promote local authors.
While an avid socialist, he and Churchill, politically polar opposites, were able to admire and to an extent befriend each other. Churchill’s assessment of him rings most true, “The greatest master of letters in the English-speaking world,” being both jester and thinker, “saint, sage and clown.”
Many decry Shaw’s outlandish statements on some fronts, his being naively wooed by Stalin and other noxious bungles. And it is so tempting to just write him off for these extracurricular views and derangements.
Indeed, his exhaustingly verbose plays are currently out of favor. It is our loss. These are among the greatest examples of prose in the English language, and they are unnervingly contemporary in the questions they ask. The Victorian/Gilded age that Shaw attacked with such vehemence seems to be currently back in vogue, or it was pre-COVID, and so Shaw’s ideas, his outrage, and his scandalous wit, which upended so many dogmatic nostrums, are needed more than ever. Shaw “politicized theater” and “dramatized public discourse” writes Fintan O’Toole. Impeccably put. And we could use a good dollop of both for our edification.
I admire Shaw’s far ranging insights, his fluidity with language, and his capacity to make us think… and wince and laugh out loud at our own folly. I do not study him for economic remedies, political solutions, practicing brevity or as Mark Twain so mischievously put it, “eschewing surplusage.” And I do not study him to understand and appreciate Shakespeare, or even Ibsen for that matter, nor to know what to make of Stalin.
I do love the gadfly, the provocateur and the fearless social conscience of a remarkable original. Isn’t that enough?
Martin Luther King
Coming to Dr. King, it has become fashionable to try and find chinks in the armor, to suggest his personal life was disgraceful in terms of liaisons, that he was essentially a libertine as well as a closet Communist.
Dr. King said it best himself,
“Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame, but greatness. Because greatness is determined by service.”
And this man served, grandly and greatly. He took on the mantle of a cause, he took justifiable bitterness and anger and channeled them towards meaningfulness, community and collaboration.
While a seemingly solitary oracular demi-god behind the podium, he listened deeply to the prodding and encouragement and guidance he received from others. He negotiated with LBJ, he received grudging guidance from Thurgood Marshall (the first African American Supreme Court Justice). He revised messages, speeches, based on exhortations from those he knew were committed to the cause. He too assembled a “team of rivals” in the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, which he co-founded. He was often openly challenged. He relished it, he used it, he transmuted the energy into expanded focus. He was never terrified by loud and raucous dissent. He had the capacity to cut through it and rise above it. And then he channeled all that as no one else could.
Inspired by Gandhi, who he traveled to meet, he also admired Socrates and was, according to biographers, followers and cohorts, eminently Socratic in approach: asking questions, probing, thinking things through, in contemplative prayer, processing things painstakingly.
His march on Washington for poverty, came from indirect guidance from Robert Kennedy. His critique of the Vietnam War came from listening to advisers and from immersing himself, horrified, by a photo essay of children devastated by napalm. It shook him to the core. In both instances, he gave courageous voice to the better angels of our human nature. He evoked our aspirations to do better and be better.
Dr. King also had a “kitchen table conversion” we are told, when he was vacillating and unsure, worried about his family, worried about himself, before going out to speak before the Lincoln Memorial. It seems he could also surrender enough to hear what he took to be at least an unmistakable whisper of divine comfort, of assurance, of guidance and of inspiration
So, whatever flaws may be unearthed or alleged, I doubt I will be studying Martin Luther King for those errors of personal or professional judgement, for whatever political views he may have held. I am not looking for someone to idolize, nor should any of us. But not to admire him? That would be a loss… I suspect not just for myself, but for all of us.
How to Admire Overall
In my long years as an organizational consultant, I often encounter this. I recall a client saying, “My boss is an ass. I just can’t brook his disrespect for people. Yes, it’s behavioral, nothing actionable, but it grates.”
I knew his boss delivered strategies, executing with zeal, outperforming competitors, and outdoing his own company’s norms and expectations. And yes, his bedside manner left quite a bit to be desired. I suggested, “Why not learn from him what you can? We can all admire his ability to drive results and get things done. Definitely do not learn people management from him. But while you’re on his team, why not let him teach you to drive things forward and deliver results… a rare trait today, in any field?”
I recall delivering a version of this guidance to many coaching clients. The issue was often different, “Yes, I understand you find your boss to be an equivocating gasbag, but you also say he’s a master at navigating organizational politics and getting cooperation. Aren’t those skills that could be an asset to you, even though you’d apply them in a far more focused, pragmatic manner?”
Or, “Yes, I know she’s easily flattered, and tolerates fools too readily. And while you may not be the court favorite, you also said she’s where she is today, because of her uncanny understanding of markets and brands. Perhaps let that be your take-away while on her team?”
And time after time, years later, coachees have said that of all the input I’ve offered, among the most salient was precisely this: how to grow with, learn from, and leverage the strength of various colleagues and bosses, without insisting they all become models of harmonious enlightened personhood before we deign to learn from them.
We are not here to “judge” what makes someone worthy of learning from or to validate their being admired for where they clearly excel. No one gave us that as our job description. Perhaps we can “understand” excellence, or even greatness, in the sense of “standing under it,” learning from it, leveraging the insights, and allowing ourselves to be engaged and enlarged accordingly.
Emerson (doubtless riddled with flaws himself before anyone sputters in outrage), but eminently a great essayist and a formidable personage, once said,
“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”
Amen! Would that we all would.
And so, let us admire away, honoring remarkable abilities actually expressed. And what of the weaknesses of those we admire? Well, we can certainly note them. But surely our time is better spent, tending to our own.