weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.

what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.

why I hate Negan

It’s generally considered annoying when people say “needless to say” and then go on to say it anyway.  But sometimes, I find that something I think should be needless to say is actually needful to say.  So, with that out of the way…Needless to say, there will be spoilers in this post about last night’s season premier of The Walking Dead.

A lot of people were angry about the allegedly contrived cliffhanger at the end of last season; I was indifferent.  Similarly, I think the big reveal in last night’s episode was handled as well as could be expected.  It may have been dragged out a bit longer than it needed to be, and the black-and-white flashbacks that Rick had (twice) of every single character may have been overkill, but they made up only a small part of an otherwise phenomenal episode.

The episode was phenomenal largely because of Andrew Lincoln’s acting.  His abject terror and humiliation were so convincing that I felt upset while watching the episode, as if a leader I had trusted in real life were really being emotionally and physically reduced to a crawling, cowering dog by a very evil man (back to this in a few minutes).  [While we’re on the subject, I was also upset (not offended, just shaken) by the violence in this episode–I had to cover my eyes a few times, which I don’t normally do while watching The Walking Dead.]  It was satisfying to watch Lincoln in a rare appearance on Talking Dead and see that he was actually okay!  This was, by the way, perhaps the most on-topic and substantial episode of Talking Dead ever–it’s worth the watch even if you normally skip the aftershow.

But there was one comment made during Talking Dead that was absolutely wrong, and I wish I could have been on the show to contradict it.  (They invited the wrong English teacher!)  Chris Hardwick, obviously trying to come up with an interesting and edgy topic, said something to the effect that Negan doesn’t see himself as a villain, and that our group has done some pretty bad stuff too–it’s all just perspectival.  That is crap.  I will admit that there have been villains on The Walking Dead before who were villains only (or primarily) because of their positioning on the show–because they came into conflict with the protagonists.  But Negan is not one of those villains.  I will also admit that the protagonists have done some very bad stuff–but again, this does not put them in the same category with Negan.  Neither Rick Grimes nor anybody in his group (nor the Governor, nor the people in Terminus) has ever taken obvious delight in bashing a living person’s head into a bloody pulp in an attempt to dehumanize both the victim and everyone watching.  And that’s why we’ve never seen Rick behave the way he did during that horrible, twisted Abraham-and-Isaac scene in which he was nearly forced to chop off Carl’s arm–sobbing, drooling, whimpering.  Rick has been afraid before; he has acted irrationally before, but now he’s having his humanity taken away from him, and this is what is so frightening to watch.  Negan reminds me of the sadistic Japanese POW camp commander I read about recently in Unbroken.  His goal is to reduce his victim to a will-less, soul-less, subservient machine.

I should clarify my post title: I don’t hate Negan as a character; I am grotesquely fascinated by every scene that he’s in, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the other phenomenal actor from last night’s episode.  I hate Negan as a human being; I hate him for what he’s trying to do to Rick (still just trying–the final scene of the episode indicates that he hasn’t quite succeeded), and therefore I don’t buy any attempt to get me to see him as a misunderstood “bad guy” who’s just doing what he thinks is best for his group.  He’s evil.