War, Coffee Breaks, & a Sense of Humor

1919-te-lawrence-and-bodyguard-at-aqaba
T.E. Lawrence with Emir Feisal and his bodyguard troops at Aqaba

One of the books I’m currently reading is Hero, the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda. I’m in chapter two of the book, where T.E. Lawrence is sizing up Emir Feisal’s army of Arab irregulars (tribesmen) and their fighting abilities against the Turkish army.

While slowly reading and sipping coffee this morning, I read these lines on page 58:

…The Juheina tribe, on Feisal’s left, lost heart quickly and fled the battlefield. The Juheina would later claim that they had merely been tired and thirsty and had needed a coffee break…their flight led to the rapid collapse of the rest of Feisal’s line and a disorderly rout…

One hopes they were going for expresso, because the regular coffee wasn’t doing it!

Anyway, in a Western army—this was 1916, the middle of WWI—a commander would have most likely faced a firing squad for this.

Later on, when Lawrence met up with Feisal, the Emir wasn’t upset at all about his army’s collapse in the face of a Turkish force half the size of his, in fact Feisal was in a rather “jolly mood.” He was trading good natured taunts and insults with another Arab commander over “the speed” in which his forces had also “run away” in the face of a Turkish force.

One of the early lessons Lawrence took from Emir Fiesal, the man Lawrence felt had the heroic qualities to lead the Arab revolt, was a sense of humor, “that invariable magnet of Arab good will” Lawrence wrote, that was one of the key qualities that allowed Fiesal to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the various tribal leaders. “The tribesmen,” Korda wrote, “responded poorly to criticism or reproof but enjoyed a good story even when it was at their own expense.”

Fiesal’s army wasn’t a disciplined professional army but a collection of Bedouin tribes, any of which, if they’d had enough, could walk away at any time. To keep this army together would take a leader adept in emotional intelligence, which Fiesal seemed naturally endowed with.

An Aesthetic Appreciation of Leadership

I read something the other day that got me to thinking about the workings of perception in how we judge leaders. It got me to thinking about the power of aesthetics in our decision making.

Leadership is like beauty in this way: you know it when you see it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes something beautiful or what makes someone a successful leader. Most people don’t put much effort in puzzling it out, they just relate seeing with being. But of course many things aren’t as they seem upon close inspection. This is especially true with the qualities we ascribe to people in leadership positions. My experience tells me that a lot of people refer to people as leaders that, in my view, just don’t really make the grade. We’re quick to be taken in by what Stephen Covey called the personality ethic, whereas the leaders that most of us truly appreciate and long for embody the character ethic. Successful leadership is difficult. It requires real character strength, constant engagement, a lot of energy, and a willingness to listen…which is a quality far less present in many so called leaders of today than people realize. Believe me.

Like beauty, successful leadership has a strong aesthetic element to it and that’s what makes understanding leadership and, by the way, teaching leadership so challenging. It’s “the character” and “the quality” of something that really matters and is what ultimately succeeds with people. The aesthetic appreciation of leadership, like beautiful architecture, is felt and acquired in seeing the careful and elegant blending of force and form. Most aspiring leaders are quick to master the force, but so few seem to have the discipline and character to master the form.