Identity

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meredian, the character of the judge is seen dancing and playing the fiddle in a remote dance hall.  When he dances and skips he tells the world “I am original, I will live forever and I will not be forgotten.”  Throughout the book the judge is quoted numerous times on issues of collective memory and witness, while McCarthy imitates scenes and characters from great works of the past like Moby Dick and the Bible.  It’s fantastic and one of my favorite books.

Blood Meridian is infamous for the murder and violence described in its pages, most of which is at the hand of or impelled by the judge.  Brilliant and skilled in crafts of life and death, the judge wants us to admit that nothing can ever happen unless someone bares witness.  He says “every man is tabernacled in every other” and asks “what could be said to occur unobserved?”  These thoughts, coupled with his view of war as a birthright and a process for culling nature, allow the judge to lead his small band to murder countless indians, bandits, and innocents they find on the road.

It is not to be confused with a moral quest, indeed the judge is suspicious of members of his band who hold a moral lens to the world.  Instead the judge dances through the pages, his victims baring witness to himself and his marauders just before they’re squeezed out of this world, the judge their final observer.  They will not forget him.  Their observation and death reinforce his identity as earth’s great observer and final suzerain.

One of the more interesting ideas I’ve seen lately comes from James March’s analysis of Don Quixote and its implications for leadership.  He’s done lectures and published books and a video about it, but basically he says that leaders do their jobs by fulfilling a strong identity.  External rewards shouldn’t matter and are even counter-productive, once you’ve declared what you are you are beholden to a number of principles that require you to act a certain way.  This idea is no different than problems central to life – early adulthood is usually described as a struggle to find and know ourselves.

An implication of all this is that if your identity and the universe conspire together to put you in a position of leadership, then your view of yourself is going to effect other people.  Maybe you see yourself as a Type A, an alpha male, or an entrepreneur.  Maybe it’s more subtle than that, some of the best leaders would not dare ascribe those archetypes to their name.  To say that we should be on a quest to find ourselves or know ourselves has always seemed a trite and self-indulgent maxim, ennobled by Beat literature and embraced by reflective adolescents everywhere.  But it may be more important than we think.  Leaders make decisions all the time that, given their status, affect more than one person and sometimes millions of people.

Given the example of the judge, and using the lesson from March, we see that one’s identity will have a profound effect on the rest of the world.  Self-examination and guidance toward a healthy identity become moral imperatives if we are to avoid destruction of the type caused by the judge.  He is the more rare and extreme example, but everyday leaders and managers run around with rampant self-delusions, destructive self-images, and poor empathy.  Mistakes by inexperienced leaders can often be coached away, but not when the problems run this deep.  You have to decide for yourself what you are and how you are tabernacled in your own mirror.  And if you are to be ethical and effective, embraced by colleagues and other men, you better put in the work and embark on that great study of how to be.

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