The Virtues of Leadership in Crisis

How literature reveals the leadership our communities need most.

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By Mark Heisten

I read Albert Camus’ The Plague as an undergraduate not because it was required reading. It wasn’t for me as an English major. No.

I was drawn to it because, like all Camus novels and essays, he combined philosophy and literature and political science into cohesive work of art. And as a young student looking for answers for my future, his writings provided me a sense of what universal truth sounded like.

This morning I read a piece on snack rationing in a time of pandemic. The writer was trying to be funny; the article wasn’t written to suggest the gravity of the situation is anything less than dire. And a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published an article by Tom Ford on how to look good for digital meetings that included among recommendations about lighting and camera placement and backgrounds, the use of powder.

It’s healthy to laugh.

Yet, beneath the levity, I know many leaders who are deeply concerned about how they show up to their organizations and teams and families during times of like these. They are committed to supporting very real needs through a voice that is empathic and sincere, unifying and strong.

There is a lot of bluster and finger-pointing going on right now, but none of it matters in getting money to those on the cusp of losing their homes or medical care to those avoiding treatment because they can’t afford it. Where are the Churchills or the Roosevelts when you need them most?

We live by metaphors. In fact, all language is metaphor, so it’s vital that we as leaders communicate ethics and morals and expectations in a language our teams will find both inspiring and comforting. And above all else, words that provide direction for the teams of people who are helping salve the wounds this crisis is inflicting on our society as a whole.

Back in November of last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, authored a fine essay in Foreign Affairs Magazine called The Cure for the Plague is Decency. The article showed how, as a work of art, The Plague amplifies the need for simple virtues as much today as it did back in 1947 when it was published. Zaretsky noted that the metaphor of plague and of being quarantined illustrates how the voice of leadership can arise from the art of literature itself.

A novel — through its characters and conflicts, may have more salience than an HBR article or a three-day management seminar. It’s not a criticism; it’s that often true understanding is best when conjured by stories relate us to the people and conditions of our times.

As Zaretsky closed the piece under the heading of A Job That’s Never Done, he cited one of the main characters of the novel, Dr. Bernad Reiux who was treating the afflicted, who insists that “not heroism but something quite ordinary drives those who resist (the mental toll of the plague): decency. When asked what he means, Rieux replies, “in my case, it consists in doing my job.’”

Leadership is a job and a responsibility. It is the use of words and stories that reveal decency and concern and of course a deep respect for human needs. It is what our communities need most from us now and always.

The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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