RLL #11: "Art, Animals, and Adaptability: G.K. Chesterton and Leadership as Art"

Real Life Leading #11

Art, Animals, and Adaptability: GK Chesterton and Leadership as Art

“Art is the signature of man,” so wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, first published almost a hundred years ago (1925, to be exact). In that book, one of Chesterton’s goals was to lay out an argument that humans are fundamentally different from animals, despite the increasing acceptance of arguments to the contrary . One of the main parts of his argument is that throughout history, going all the way back to cave drawings of animals, humans have created art, whereas animals do not. He does concede that animals build: beaver dams, bird nests, etc.; but these are built out of instinct and necessity and for functionality, making it fundamentally different than the artwork created by men and women for thousands of years. He goes on to drive the argument home by pointing out that cows don’t write voluminous histories of their goings-on, and even if they did, who would want to read them; birds don’t make grand nests with carvings of other birds for beauty’s sake. No, he says, in art we see that mankind is fundamentally different than the animals.

I believe that Chesterton’s argument is compelling, and I also believe that it has a certain applicability to leadership: namely, that leadership is an art form that must be trained, honed, and adapted to various situations in the same way that different art forms and movements have held sway at different times and locations in history. It is debatable whether there is such as thing as “right” art or “wrong” art, though there are obvious differences between “good” and “bad” art, even if some of those differences are in the eyes of the beholders. So in leadership, there are many different styles, and many different traits and skills, all of which are useful in different situations and at different times. Thus, there is no magic pill or silver bullet approach to leadership: there is no one ‘right’ style or approach that is always the best in every situation.

We must take a moment here to be clear: I am not saying that there are not any fundamental principles or traits. I am not endorsing a postmodernist approach to leadership in which everything is relative. (In fact, I’d argue that a postmodern approach to leadership would simply be Machiavelli by another name, but that’s another topic for another day.) Just as in coaching sports, there is no “one size fits all” approach to the game that will always yield victory, so in leadership there is no “one size fits all” style that will produce the best results in every situation. No, in leadership, one should always be committed to core principles, worldview beliefs that form the foundation of all that one does as a leader (things such as integrity, character, honesty, respect for others, etc.) while also being willing to adapt and change approaches as necessary.

We’ve all heard parents, teachers, or coaches say things that begin with, “Back in my day…” and then go on to lament how things are no longer the way they were in some more or less idealized past. Perhaps the best example of this is the grandfather in the beloved classic movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ who says, “In my day, television was called books!” Often these statements are simply thinly veiled complaints about how things have changed. However, there is also often a grain of truth (and sometimes more than a grain) in them when we consider that things DO change, and not always for the better. However, as Chesterton taught us, humanity is still humanity, even when cultures, countries, and even currencies change.

The art of leadership, then, is learning 1) which approach is best suited to each situation, and 2) when/how to adapt to various styles based on the differing factors. Let us consider some of these factors and explore ways in which we may need to adapt our leadership based on them. One of the major things to consider as a leader are the various demographics of the audience you are leading: age, gender, size of the audience, background, etc. If this seems obvious, that’s ok: it should be. And yet, until we have actually led diverse audiences, we may be unaware of just how our leadership should adapt.

For example, it wasn’t until I taught both fifth graders and ninth graders during the same school year that I realized just how different students are at age 10-11 compared to age 14-15. Same thing with coaching different age players: the needs are different, the skill levels are different, and so my style and approach must be different. In the same way, I have spent the past four years coaching high school girls soccer, and in those years, I have learned that my approach must be drastically different than it was in my previous six years of coaching mostly high school boys. Again, perhaps that should have seemed obvious to me (and no doubt it is obvious to people more observant than myself), but it was not until my second year, after having had numerous players reduced to tears due to the tone of voice I used when correcting mistakes, that I realized I needed to change the way I coached since these were teenage girls, not teenage boys. Full disclosure: I am thankful every day for these lessons, as I now have a teenage daughter of my own, and I have no doubt that I would be a worse father had I not had a few years of ‘practice’ with coaching girls this age.

Other factors to think about when considering your leadership approach include the purpose of the group and the (for lack of a better term) lifespan of the group. If the group is academic in nature (as in a classroom), then the approach will be somewhat different than toward a group that is either athletic or of a business nature. Many of the leadership principles are the same, as evidenced by the high degree of applicability of leadership books written by coaches (for a great example, read RLL #6 about Coach K’s book ‘Leading With the Heart’, at https://www.speakerjoel.com/real-life-leading-blog/ms22tdejfnrg4mdych8xgr2s68dmnw). Nonetheless, one does not lead a company or corporation in the exact same way that one leads an athletic team or a classroom or even a family.

Finally, a leader must consider the ‘lifetime’ of the group in question. For example, I have coached at a few different college soccer camps (Methodist University and Duke University in North Carolina), and when I did so, I had to remember that these were players I would only interact with for less than a week. Therefore my approach, though demanding, was not the same as it would have been toward a team committed to a whole season, or toward a soccer program that I plan on building for many years. In addition, I approach leading my family differently than all of these other situations because the lifetime of my family is longer than any athletic program, classroom, or business with which I affiliate.

So, as Chesterton pointed out, art is what separates man from the animals, and the art of leadership involve both a commitment to one’s principles as well as a willingness to adapt our approach to different situations depending on numerous different factors. We must all use our natural gifts and talents to best serve those we lead, while remaining committed to what we believe to be right and true. In addition to all of those things, we must also be open to continuing to learn more about how to grow, how to adapt, and how to lead in different situations.

Action Step: this week, look at your various leadership roles and think of at least one example of how you lead differently in each one, and then email me to let me know what you came up with.