Victor Herman, in his Coming Out of the Ice, tells of a man who kept him from going insane during his first 24 hours in the Russian Gulag.
His cell (No. 39): five and a half feet wide, and ten feet long with a boarded up window at the far end and the cell door at the other. Two benches along the walls and sixteen men to the cell and closest to the door, a parasha, a round vat that served as a latrine and was emptied every ten days.
The stench was choking, silence was required and so was movement. From dawn to darkness they were forced to sit, silent and stare at a hole in the cell door through which the guards were able to watch them.
At night they lay like eggs in a carton on the cold stone floor. Every inch of space was taken and the slightest movement to ease a pain was bought at the expense of a fellow-sufferer.
Herman confessed that after only 24 hours of it he was on the edge of madness and was kept from it only by “the Elder.” The Elder—no names—sat closest to the parasha and to the door and if a guard had it in him to vent his bad temper or rage or whatever the Elder was always the first to get the beating.
This leader earned the right to make two decisions each day. One of them was to give the sign when everyone was to begin to eat. He would count sixteen bowls of soup as they came through the feeding hole in the cell door to ensure that nobody received less than his share. Twice in the night he would signal for the men to change sleeping positions so as to ease the awful agony of cramp and disability when the morning came.
I accept the fact that there are and should be people “over” us—we must have leaders, it isn’t a question of will we or won’t we; we’ll have them! We can juggle the language, change terms, substitute this word for that but we will all be “under” someone in some area of life; there’ll always be someone (or someones) who shows us the truth of things and when he/she does, in that realm we submit ourselves to them.
At its best authority compels us by persuading us that the leader has more in him/her than we have; more of the right spirit or wisdom or devotion, or whatever. They don’t compel us in the sense of coercing or making formal demands for recognition—they earn our respect and submission to their lead simply by their skill their giftedness, character and behavior. But at one point or another if we’re going to live as a community there will be “leaders”.
Leadership can be looked at in terms of how many people we can get under us but that’s the pagan kind that Jesus spoke about on the betrayal night when He spoke of leadership in terms of service. He said, “There’s either pagan authority or Mine.” So, maybe it’s not too sugary to say leadership at its best is seeing how many we can get under so as to lift them. Maybe it’s more about seeing how many we can get into to transform.
There’s something sinister (I think) in attempts to get rid of leadership (however that’s attempted) because we will always end up with leaders (call them what we may or call them nothing). They may speak quietly and with a smile, there may be more than one and they may even ask for opinions now and then but we will have leaders. The group may even “democratically vote” on occasions but there will be those that (ugly phrase but still) “call the shots.” There will always be those judged (not wickedly) not gifted to do this or that and they will happily follow the leaders & happily submit to them. (Call them what you want but they will lead and there will be followers.)
I can’t help thinking “the Elder” at the door was regarded as “the Elder” by common consent and not because he demanded recognition or because he somehow rigged the vote. He manifestly served, but “the elder” still called the shots twice a day and was obeyed without quibbling or worry about questions of “equality” in all things. (There’s something strange too in a person or a group that is preoccupied with “I must be understood and treated as equal in all ways.”) We will “obey” someone! Even if I’m given a turn at “calling the shots”—I’m given it by someone(s) with the authority to do it.
This entire area needs, and is worth, thinking about. I recognize that the most compelling piece of this little thing is the telling of Herman’s cell, so it can’t hurt us to reflect on that a while. I’m tempted to say that those who are our best leaders are those who suffer most for us. But, yes, it’s too simple; still it’s not too simple for us to take that aspect of leadership seriously.