Brain Pickings

David Foster Wallace on Leadership, Illustrated and Read by Debbie Millman

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“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.”

“Leadership” is one of those buzzwords — like “curation” — whose meaning has been forcibly squeezed out of them by regurgitative overuse and relentless overapplication to things that increasingly dilute the essence of the concept the word once used to capture. In a culture that calls pop culture celebrities “thought-leaders” and looks for “leadership ability” in kindergartners, we’re left wondering what leadership actually means and questioning what makes a great leader.

The best definition of the essence beneath the buzzword comes from David Foster Wallace, who would’ve been 52 this week and who, even amidst heartbreaking and ultimately fatal personal turmoil, was able to distill the meaning of life with crystalline poignancy. In his 2000 essay “Up, Simba: Seven Days on the Trail of an Anticandidate,” found in the altogether fantastic Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (public library), Wallace considers the leader.

In this beautiful addition to the Brain Pickings artist series, Debbie Millman — who has previously illustrated memorable words by Anaïs Nin, Edith Windsor, Herman Melville, and other beloved writers — captures an abridged version of Wallace’s timeless wisdom in a painstakingly handcrafted felt-on-felt typographic art piece, created as a poster for the 2014 How Design Live conference. The artwork is available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

It is just about impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful clichés they make your eyes glaze over and are hard to even hear. One such term is “leader,” which all the big candidates use all the time — as in e.g. “providing leadership,” “a proven leader,” “a new leader for a new century,” etc. — and have reduced to such a platitude that it’s hard to try to think about what “leader” really means and whether indeed what today’s Young Voters want is a leader. The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

As the host of the National-Design-Award-winning podcast Design Matters, it is only fitting that Millman would bring Wallace’s words to life in this gorgeous reading, recorded exclusively for Brain Pickings:

Get the print here. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays is a remarkable read in its entirety. For more of Millman’s own illustrated typographic essays, treat yourself to her Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, one of the best art and design books of 2013.

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