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One aspect of my studies on contemporary society has involved taking a close look at the figure of the leader and at his role in guiding the masses.


1) The ideal

In the film “1492: Conquest of Paradise” by Ridley Scott, an old and defeated Christopher Columbus encounters the Royal Treasurer of Spain, who reproaches him for being an idealistic dreamer. In reply, the famous navigator gestures at the city with its palaces and gargoyles high on the building tops and asks the other what he sees. “Civilization,” is the forthcoming reply. “Well, then,” concludes Columbus, “all this civilization has been created by idealists like me.”

Lately I have encountered many seasoned and ambitious professional people who know how to put together astutely-calibrated financial deals or engineer impressive political strategies. In a number of conversations I have had the chance to ask them to tell me the reason behind—the significance of—their last or most recent decision or action. More often than not, I have realized that they don’t even understand the question. I imagine myself in their place and put a similar sort of question to myself, something like: “Why do (did) I want to become a university professor?”  The answer is immediately clear to me. It’s because it is something I care greatly about, it represents self-fulfillment, it is a significant prestigious achievement to hear myself addressed as ‘Professor’. For analogous reasons I can imagine myself wanting to become a senator, president, university chancellor, city mayor, or minister. And yet in my conversations with these individuals only rarely did I hear any say that what they were doing or had just done represented a sort of stepping stone towards the achievement of a higher, more important goal, objective, mission, vocation, dream, or vision.
Granted, it is true that people with a thirst for power are ready and willing to do every and anything to obtain it, and that accordingly they are likely to ascend higher and higher along the ladder of success; it is likewise true that people who are driven by a love of wealth and personal prestige oftentimes accomplish great feats or meet with enormous success. And yet, only people who are inspired by a larger vision of how things should be will be able to carry off enterprises that others aren’t even capable of imagining, or that others dismiss as silliness or sheer madness.

Although almost everyone thought that  Christopher Columbus was an able navigator with a burning ambition to reach China and become wealthy and famous as the Great Admiral of the Oceans, he had in fact a religious conception of his undertaking. “God has made me the messenger of the new heavens and earth that He talks about in St. John’s Apocalypse, having already announced it out of the mouth of Isaiah; and He has directed me to the place where it is to be found,” Columbus wrote. Another important historical figure guided by a larger, religious vision was Isaac Newton, the creator of physics and modern astronomy, who in addition to being a brilliant scientist was also a mystic and an alchemist in search of signs in Nature of God’s mysterious plan. Still another example that springs to mind is, of course, Alexander the Great. His burning goal was not to put Asia under Greek rule but rather to create a world empire in which Greeks and Asians would constitute one, unified political community. In a similar way, Julius Caesar wasn’t interested in becoming king of Rome but rather in transforming the Roman conquests into an organized empire governed by one set of laws.

The men and women with this sort of vision are completely different from the ambitious types who need to accumulate wealth and honours in order to feel important. Just as they are different from those fanatics who want to impose their religious creed or political regime on the world with violence.

They don’t want to dominate but to create something new. The creative impulse doesn’t have to do with the realm of selfishness or power—in other words, with taking—but rather with that of altruism—i.e. with giving. And even where power comes into play, it is only an instrument for being able to give more. Someone who is a creator, a builder, with a dream to realize, does not give orders or exact obedience for the pleasure of seeing people bow down to him, but rather dedicates all his energy to building something with others which concerns them as much as it does himself. For this reason his ‘commands’ are appeals and the reaction that he wants to have in return is not ‘obedience’ but assent.

All creators are leaders by nature, in the sense that they want to get others to change and to lead them down new roads, with the objective of realizing as-yet unimaginable possibilities. They want to create new institutions and worlds where people can live better lives and feel more fulfilled. They are convinced that others will naturally agree with them and support their project. They make every attempt to rouse the incredulous, energize the inert, and convince all those who are trapped like prisoners in their daily routines and concerns. It is obvious that many of these people are resistant to such change or just can’t understand it. But the creators march on, making their way amidst a thousand of such obstacles, until they are at last victorious. ‘Well if they haven’t gone and done it’, we think. They offer us the demonstration that the impossible is possible, and the unreachable obtainable.

2) Make us dream

We expect a real leader to give meaning to what we do. Most Italians are familiar with an expression often heard in American films, which is “make us dream!”. It is quite remarkable, isn’t it?, that the most pragmatic-minded nation on earth is not crying out for something concrete—as in ‘let’s build this’ or ‘let’s build that’—but rather is asking for nothing less than the most ephemeral and irreal object that exists in our world, which is say a dream. This just goes to prove that the only thing that really counts, that actually mobilizes people and gives them the strength to act, is a dream. A dream that as an ideal and an objective extends well beyond our individual dreams, a dream that constitutes an ideal kingdom towards which we can proceed hand in hand, happy to be all together and proud of what we are trying to achieve.

Humanity has always lived off dreams. Christianity at its start was a great dream, one that promised to erect an embryonic version of Paradise (the City of God) on earth; it promised that this world would no longer be ruled by the violent and cunning but rather by the good and saintly. The French Enlightenment was also a dream; its tenet was that any evil can be redressed, and even the most difficult or complex problem solved—simply by applying the rational rules of logic. A few centuries later (and for well over a hundred years), communism made the oppressed masses the world over believe in a dream of their glorious redemption from poverty and injustice. In point of fact, it produced only revolutions, massacres, inhuman bureaucracies, genocides, and dictatorships. Still, human beings continued for the longest time to follow its red flags and sing its praises on account of those initial dreams and hopes. Put a different way, the dream was so immense, and their hopes were so immense, as to blind them to reality. Without suggesting that such extremes represent the rule, we can nevertheless say that any great enterprise always begins as an act of faith or a dream which has given one man the strength and will to overcome the obstacles, misunderstandings, and jealousy stemming from the petty, established interests that his dream now threatens.

One might argue that while dreams are the foundation on which religious and political systems are built, what weight could they possibly have in the actual building of any enterprise, or of any institution? The answer I think lies in the fact that while such undertakings may be motivated by an individual’s desire to gain a wider range of power or make a lot of money, just as they also may simply fall into place as a consequence of q political decision made by bureaucrats, in the end it comes down to someone at some point having decided to consider this undertaking his reason for living and dedicating all his time and genius to its launch, aided only by a few motivated and loyal followers.

In short, the constant here is that there must be a leader with a dream, backed by companions who share his dream. If this is the case, it doesn’t matter if the company or undertaking is public or private; the same sort of energetic launch is guaranteed in both cases. The new company or undertaking will be able to weather any obstacle, convince even the most intractable functionaries or civil servants, and attract similarly motivated and creative individuals. It won’t be long before it prospers and starts to grow, becoming the sort of huge tree that dominates over all the rest. As I write these words, I am thinking about the founding of the University of Trent here in Italy, which would never have happened without the efforts and dedication of Bruno Kessler. Even the revolutionary student leaders back in 1968 recognized this.

If we want to find examples in private industry, there is of course the start of such important car companies as Fiat, Montecatini, and Ferrari, and the more recent beginnings of such famous fashion houses as Dior, Valentino, Armani, and Versace. While I’m at it, it only seems right to include here the company created by Adriano Olivetti as well.

Now let’s just suppose that in a given company, the founder suddenly dies and there is no worthy successor on hand to replace him. The forces that worked against the founder and his company continue to work against it. In addition, there are now speculators and various other ‘vultures’ circling round the business. The result is similar to the passing of a deathly cold wind. Oh, the buildings remain in place, and many of the same people continue to work there, but it’s just that the creative spark and drive that were once there have now vanished. The ingenious undertaking now becomes an ordinary business like any other. It will only revive and take on life again if another leader and another generation, capable of believing and dreaming, arrive on the scene.

The leader is not a figure invested with the power to command; the leader is rather the one who has the power to create something. No one is capable of holding together a nation, a company, or even a family if he or she fails to face and solve the new problems that keep cropping up; holding things together means that one is constantly creating and inventing. History is full of idle men of power who preferred to spend their time hunting or at banquets and receptions and leave the governing to cgoverning to able ministers or, in the governing to capable ministers or, as in the case of the Islamic Caliph, to the Grand Vizier. The Roman Empire had a number of inept or insane emperors, but it lasted as long as it did because there were brilliant generals and loyal soldiers defending its borders.   In even the sleepiest republics in the world today, where the national political leaders spend their time conspiring and plotting revenge on each other, there are inevitably great, solitary individuals who arise out of nowhere to make sweeping political changes or to create companies, found newspapers and institutions, or create brilliant works of art.  They are the ones that people look to, and it is thanks to them that hope and trust live on.

3) Indicate the common objective

Realizing any enterprise always means being able to count on the contribution and consensus of many people. One of the biggest mistakes that a leader can make is to think he can achieve the objective all on his own, by simply relying on his own inner certainties instead of listening to others who are trying to give him information and suggestions or warn him of errors and dangers.  Benito Mussolini, who had many fine leadership qualities, started down the road to ruin when he decided to allow Fascist writings like “Mussolini is always right” to be painted on walls and buildings across Italy.

There is also the opposiite error to contend with: here, the leader loses sight of his objectives and as a result there is no clear, efficient, vigorous and long-sighted leadership whereby flexibility and adaptability are employed to advance towards ever-visible goals. This ability to deal with change is essential in both the political and business worlds. Many companies go under because the partners or shareholders are incapable of deciding on a common line of action. From the start they are interested in and intent on obtaining very different things. After the first commercial success or two, one or two of them begins to show less drive and ambition and is content to enjoy in his or her private life that initial bit of accumulated wealth. There are others, however, who set their sights still higher and make a series of new investments. Things proceed smoothly in this direction until the inevitable moment of crisis arrives, and the company finds itself at a crossroads or turning point. There is always some business partner who panics and jumps ship. Then there are the internal divisions and clashes over whether or not to change the marketing network or if the product should be modified in order to meet market demand. And while these debates are raging, they are likely to seem to be about how to decide on the right means to an end, whereas in reality they are all about the ends—the objectives—themselves.

The process which I’ve just described in even more important in the realm of politics. By definition, the charismatic leader of a political or social movement manages to keep its primary objective in mind while at the same time mediating between the various currents and initiatives forthcoming at the grass-roots level. What the leader says goes, because the others consider him “the most adapt” at making important decisions and also “the one in the know.” When it comes to political coalitions between various political actors or parties, on the other hand,  leaders operating in this context must be above all skilled mediators capable of putting together consensus for a plan that must offer a reward or advantage, no matter how small, to all sides.  It is a tough thing to pull off, however, and such efforts are more often than not likely to fail or to stop short of their goal, leaving a number of substantial objectives unfulfilled. The thread leading from point A to point B is often lost and must be refound. This already difficult task becomes all the more so in certain constitutional realities. For example, parliamentary democracies where, as in Italy, the Prime Minister is nominated by the President of the Republic and then must respond to Parliament, are usually notably inefficient in this regard.

If we shift our attention from the external relationships between parts of a coalition to the inner dynamics of the organizations themselves, we find that there are numerous divergences here as well. One solution that is often attempted is that of re-enforcing the bureaucratic structure, but this is a grave error; the more rigid the structure becomes, the more each single department or office tries to expand its functions and each civil servant head attempts to re-enforce his or her power by complicating the application process, augmenting the paperwork, and increasing rules and prohibitions. In such large organizations we see that oftentimes that the people who work there have completely lost sight of the reason for the organization’s existence. Each individual cares only about promoting the interests of his professional category or group. To take a dramatic case in point, why is the Italian university system so inefficient? Obviously it’s because the professors are far more concerned with increasing the number of tenured positions in their discipline and setting their star doctoral candidates up in their careers than with thinking seriously about what courses should be offered to their students in order to best prepare them for the evolving demands of the real world.

There’s a second, even sorer example that we can take from Italian reality, and that concerns the tremendously inefficient train system. What lies behind this inefficiency? It all has to do with the fact the politicians in charge have done everything under the sun to accommodate the demands of unionized train workers, who in turn have cared only about increasing the number of jobs rather than improving efficiency. By consequence, all the money has gone for salaries and wages and nothing has been spent for modernizing the train network. Examples like this show how easy it becomes at a certain point to avert the need for “a strong man,” for a leader who knows how to impose a single line and direction, for a leader who asks for ready, absolute blind obedience from all. If such a leader appears, this strategy is successful  in its early stages; everyone comes running, everyone wants to cooperate and participate, and this puts an end to the discussions, delays, and inefficiencies. Problems begin when after some time has passed and the omnipotent leader, who thinks he can do everything alone, becomes isolated and out of contact with real, concrete people, with all their problems, aspirations, and hopes. The leader no longer knows how to motivate and inspire them. As a result, the company—the enterprise—begins once again to lose momentum and initiative. Certainly, people go about their jobs, but they perform in a mediocre fashion. They lack enthusiasm and are incapable of creative brainstorming. Their energies dry up. The same thing happens in politics. There are certain important political leaders whose oppressive mentality and approach to things may actually in the end suffocate the creative energies of the productive part of society. It is evident at this point that the real function of a leader is not to do, take care of, and control everything in place of everyone and anyone else. Just as it is not to impose his will in all fields and endeavours, or give minutely-detailed orders in response to every task or issue, and by doing so frustrate the creativity of others. A leader is, above all, responsible for safeguarding the common objective, for indicating to all the road to take, and for making sure that things do not stray off-course.

He must transmit, to workers or helpers at all levels of the organization, a sense of mission, the significance of the task at hand, and a sense of duty. To succeed at this, he or she must personally believe profoundly in what he or she is affirming. No one can convince others if he or she is not convinced him- or herself. Likewise, no one can transmit a model if he doesn’t personally practice it, if he doesn’t personally set an example. It is with his energy, belief, and example that he generates good feeling, trust, and enthusiasm in those who work with him. This in turn will naturally lead them to employ all their energy and intelligence in their work. Just as this will serve to teach them how, in turn, to guide, mobilize, and set an example for the people who work under them. In short, all this will allow them to become authentic leaders in their own right.

4) Creating a moral community

A company achieves the highest possible level of financial success when its top managers share the same goals and put aside personal interests in order to dedicate themselves totally to the common cause. By consequence there is shared good feeling, instantaneous mutual understanding, and easy, spontaneous agreement on key issues, which in turn sparks enormous creativity and drive.

This is what every leader and entrepreneur today wants to accomplish. And when he manages to bring it off, he subsequently needs to cultivate, protect, and enhance this spirit, at the same time as he must take heed that negative tendencies, especially the pursuit of individual goals or interests in lieu of collective ones, do not come begin to erode things.

Too often we forget that any and every company or institution is made up of human beings who feel strong when they feel united and are pursuing a common goal.

Too often we forget that every and any individual wants to feel that his or her work has meaning and value, and hence a company will grow, prosper, and triumph when all the people who work there, from the president down to the janitor or deliveryman, feel proud to belong there and proud of their contributions to its ongoing development.

Too often we forget that a company or institution will prosper and flourish only when its directors and managers are leaders whom employees respect, admire, approve of, and feel affection for…and whom they themselves would elect to have as leaders if the choice were up to them.

Too often we forget that a company’s success hinges on the founded conviction that everyone, from the top executives to the humblest of staff, has that their work is perceived, appreciated, and rewarded in a fair and equal way.

Too often we forget that a company’s success also depends on the fact that all staff and management at every level of hierarchy respect and support each other, and work together without bickering and back-stabbing or jealousy and lies.

Too often we forget that words and declarations of intent are not enough to motivate people should the events and facts that follow not bear them out, or if the leading company executives pretend to be convinced when in reality they are hypocritically telling lies.

Too often we forget that a company is not merely an economic entity (with economic interests holding things together) but also a moral community. When this moral community falls apart or disintegrates, it is doomed to make a slow decline into mediocrity and in the end to fail.

Too often we forget that besides the gifts of intelligence, genius, and long-sightedness, a great leader must also possess moral qualities. The only means he or she has to transmit these qualities to others is by way of example. What I am saying should be obvious, and yet, impossible as it may sound, people seem to have forgotten that any country, political party, or business firm has a genuine need for morality and virtue. And what is more, this morality is not some sort of wordplay but springs instead from sincere emotions and consistent actions or behaviour. It is, furthermore, something that one can teach or learn only with time. The word ‘virtue’ today is so rarely used that we have even forgotten what it truly means. A virtue is a cluster of qualities that we have internalized deep in our psyche, and which leads us simultaneously and necessarily towards three objectives. The first is to give a concrete form to what we hold to be a value, the realization of which will make us feel like better people. The second is to obtain some useful result that will help/benefit us or our community. The third is to construct a model, a  code of behaviour, for others to follow. All three requisites need be present for there to be a full and complete ‘virtue.’

Let’s take as our first example the virtue (or moral quality) of courage. Courage is supposed to make me feel stronger and better. It is supposed to allow me to reach the goals and objectives I’ve set for myself. Remember, however, that whatever I do is supposed to be perceived as a model for others. The courage to do evil is, therefore, no moral quality (no virtue). Never is the courage to do only those things that hurt or harm myself.

If what I have just outlined describes a virtue, a moral quality, it isn’t hard to make a list of the virtues to look for in a manager, director, or leader. All any of you have to do is to imagine how a leader that you would want to follow would be, what would make you believe enthusiastically in him or her, what would make you trust in him or her, and what would make you work your hardest, without feeling that immense weariness in you soul that comes every time there is an act of unfairness, dishonesty, falsehood, and presumption. We are talking not about the moral qualities of  hermits or saints, but of normal men and women who have problems to solve inside an organization that is very much part of the real world.

Let’s try to come up with a list that fits the bill. What moral qualities, what virtues, should our imaginary leader have? To start with: sincerity, which is to say the antithesis of falsity and slander, the opposite of someone who is two-faced and conspiratorial by nature; then objectivity, meaning the capability to make evaluations without being influenced by prejudices and malicious rumours; next, willpower, which will keep him calm and rational even in the most difficult moments; next, humility, which is to say the capacity to listen to others and to admit and correct one’s own mistakes; next, courage, which is so crucial to have when the moment comes to make difficult decisions and to answer for them; followed by generosity, which is to say not only the ability to think about others and to consider their well-being, but also to give one’s all for the cause, and in doing so, set an example; and lastly, justness and fair-play, whereby one practices the difficult art of knowing how to choose those who are capable, honest, and sincere, and fire or get rid of the dishonest, false, slandering bad apples who persecute and step on the innocent.

Excerpt taken from Knowing How to Command, Ital. version L’arte del commando, Francesco Alberoni, Rizzoli

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