Friday, April 01, 2011

Leading, By Examples #2 - The Concern of the King

My second leadership blog entry from my J-O-B. For the details on just what the hell is going on here, check the first one. Enjoy!

"The Lord of the Rings movies did a better job with the characters than the books.

They are more engaging, more human, more relatable, and all-around more likeable in Peter Jackson’s films than in Tolkien’s books. I’m not saying this to pick an internet fight with anyone. Having read the books and seen the films numerous times each, I find the characters as presented in the films far more engaging than in the book, in which they often seem more like cool, well-designed plot devices (ones of whom I am nonetheless fond!). I give you this extended preface to explain why, for the purposes of this entry, I will be focusing on the film version of a character, not the book version as much. That character, as you may have already guessed from the title, is Aragorn, the eponymous king.

Aragorn, in most fantasy fiction works, would be the primary protagonist. He is brave, strong, wise, ass-kicking, name-taking, and the son of a mystical noble bloodline. This IS your generic fantasy hero. Yet in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is not presented as the primary protagonist, Frodo Baggins is. The quest is Frodo’s quest, and it is through the eyes of Frodo and his hobbit friends that we are presented with much of the plot of the books. But while Frodo is the protagonist, the driving force, the bearer of the artifact that drives the entire story, Aragorn is most definitely the leader of the Fellowship, with only Gandalf as a potential alternative.

Aragorn has a lot of innate gifts and developed talents. For example, he is an almost supernaturally skilled swordfighter and an excellent archer. These skills prove quite useful in the dangerous quest to destroy the ring and save Middle Earth, and are no doubt excellent aids to his leadership ability. But they, in and of themselves, are NOT his leadership ability. Ass-kicking does not equal leadership, no matter how cool it looks and how effective a strategy it may be from time to time. So then what qualities DO make Aragorn a great leader?

One that comes to mind is consistency and integrity. Aragorn does what he says he’ll do, even when what he says he’ll do is difficult. Given the chance to take the ring from Frodo, despite considerable temptation, he refuses. It would be counter to the loyalty he has pledged to his companion. Upon Boromir’s death, Aragorn swears to him to not let Minas Tirith, Boromir’s home and the last remaining great seat of human power fall before the forces of evil. It takes him a while to get there, but he eventually does just that. He walks among the dead, recruits them to his cause, and steals a fleet of pirate ships to get there and do it. This is someone who keeps his word. Nothing builds trust in a leader more than the knowledge that what they tell you has meaning. Nothing destroys trust faster than empty promises.

Things don’t always go as planned though. Sometimes what we set out to do becomes impossible, at least in the way we had planned to do it. At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the fellowship breaks apart. Frodo and Sam cross the river Anduin and head off to destroy the ring on their own, Boromir dies, and Merry and Pippin are captured by the Uruk-Hai. Gandalf fell in battle with the Balrog several scenes prior. And I would argue that up until that point, Gandalf had actually been the leader of the fellowship, guiding the group through most of their decisions. With Gandalf gone, leadership now fell to Aragorn. This was the beginning of his growth into his eventual role as king. But, back to this moment of seeming failure, Aragorn was presented with a host of sub-optimal options. He could no longer keep the fellowship united in their quest to destroy the ring. So Aragorn did what leaders do: he improvised and kept going. He decided that the thing to do now was pursue the Uruks that kidnapped Merry and Pippin and save his allies from torture and death. It wasn’t the quest as written, but it was something. And it turned out to be important. As with more mundane leaders, when things don’t go our way, we must accept that fact, re-assess the situation, and strike out anew.

The group that Aragorn is tasked with leading, and the subsequent larger groups, are diverse in background, temperament, and opinion. Aragorn is deft at approaching those he leads in ways that appropriate to each. He interacts with Gimli differently than he does with Gandalf than he does with Sam. A leader is capable of doing this, of making his or her group stronger through diversity rather than divided. When the party is exhausted and discouraged at the thought of the next legs of their journey, and Gimli grimly, grumpily outlines the nasty road ahead (read: he’s whining), Aragorn’s response is, “That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength.” Gimli is a proud character, and Aragorn knows this. He knows that a challenge to Gimli’s pride will reinvigorate him for the task ahead. He acts more gently with Frodo, with more understanding .With Sam he is more encouraging, helping build confidence. Aragorn tailors his leadership style to fit the needs of those he leads.

One last topic I’ll point out is that Aragorn does not start off capable or even fully willing to become the King of Arnor and Gondor (the great kingdoms of men). Aragorn, like all leaders, grows and learns. He is open to doing so. Aragorn grew up with elves, and at the beginning, identifies more with elves. He has less faith in other humans. His initial interactions with Boromir show a certain level of disdain (in part because Boromir makes some pretty bad suggestions). Over the course of the first part of the story, Aragorn learns to accept himself as a human man, in part through letting go of his disdain for Boromir and seeing what is good in him. Over the course of the second part of the story, Aragorn learns to be a king through interaction with Theoden, King of Rohan. It is fair to say they learn from each other. Aragorn helps Theoden recover his bravery and spirit, Theoden helps Aragorn learn what it means to think and care for an entire nation of people instead of just a small group of competent adventurers. And this all leaves out his most influential mentor, Gandalf. Aragorn learns volumes from Gandalf about the ways of the world and the nature of the quest. The point with all of these is that Aragorn, to become the king, had to be open to learning. He had to accept that there was more to know, more to understand, and room to grow. By doing so, he moved from being a gifted ranger to being a great king. Be open to learning, and you too can grow as a leader far beyond where you are currently, even if where you are is already pretty darn good!"