Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Why you should be a little more like Don Quixote

Among literary characters, Don Quixote is a bumbling idiot, but evidence suggests that he exemplifies leadership

Last week, I stumbled across a very compelling, hour-long film created by James G. March, professor emeritus at Stanford University, on lessons from Don Quixote on leadership.

I confess I have not read the book. I do not have the mental muscle or aptitude to read a tome that size. On that, I am with that outspoken British novelist, Martin Amis, who once said: “While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw—that of outright unreadability."

What I do know of Don Quixote from stories learnt in school is that he is a loveable character who bumbles through life and was created by Miguel de Cervantes to entertain children. Followed everyplace by his idiotic aide Sancho Panza, he is often puzzled as well at what his master really wants. He asks questions that sound equally stupid and gives in to all of what Quixote demands.

As children, we laughed when elders read Quixote’s so-called adventures to us. And as adults we routinely use metaphors like “tilting at windmills", a phrase that finds its origins in Quixote’s character, to refer to an act we think is stupid that someone is about to embark upon.

That is why, when March said that Quixote was not stupid, but a leader, I was most intrigued. This film had to be seen. And I invested an hour in it.

The sum and substance of March’s message is this: Cervantes’s real intent was not to write a story about a delusional character. Instead, he used Don Quixote as a literary metaphor.

So, what we read in the book was the story of a man on a mission to win the heart of a poor farm girl who is a prisoner. But in his head, he imagines himself a knight in armour, and the poor girl a beautiful princess.

But as Sancho Panza sees it is, Quixote is not a knight; the poor girl is neither beautiful nor a princess; there are no monsters, only windmills; no armies exist against whom Quixote has to fight, only sheep on the plains of Spain.

What if, March asks, we placed ourselves in Sancho Panza’s boots and thought of Don Quixote as a leader. When looked at from that perspective, some interesting insights emerge on what separates the laity from a leader.

Insight #1: Imagination

Quixote was no knight. But he dreamed of being one. Not just that, he actually imagined himself as one and lived like one would. He visualized what a knight was like, got himself a horse—so what if it was a lame one? He had an aide—so what if he was an idiot?

The larger point is, unlike Sancho, who could not see beyond the peasant girl, the windmills and the sheep, Quixote could imagine, visualize and live a life primed to get for himself the most beautiful princess, take on the worst monsters and fight the largest of armies.

He had the moral courage in him to go beyond the ordinary in spite of those around him thinking of him as an outlier. He could imagine what others couldn’t—the first step to greatness and leadership.

Insight #2: Commitment

After Quixote had imagined what was possible, he had it in him to commit to it and believe in the purity of his goals. Not just that, he had the audacity to turn his back on naysayers.

It is only fair then to ask what came of Quixote’s actions? At the end of the day, what good is great imagination and intense commitment if the outcome or consequences are going to be disastrous?

March provides an answer to that in an interview to the Stanford Business School’s in-house magazine: “Quixote is hardly a good model for leadership, but he provides a basis for thinking about what justifies great action. Why do we do what we do? Our standard answer is that we do what we do because we expect it to lead to good consequences.

“Quixote reminds us that there is another possible answer: We do what we do because it fulfils our identity, our sense of self. Identity-based actions protect us from the discouragement of disappointing feedback. Of course, the cost is that it also slows learning. Both types of actions are essential elements of human sensibility, but our usual conversations—particularly in business settings and schools—tend to forget the second."

It is pertinent that we ask, what is an identity-based action? To put it very simply, all of us start out with the best of intent. For instance, “By January 2017, I will run the Mumbai Marathon."

This is a focus, or an appearance-based goal. It does not fundamentally change our identity, who we are, what we stand for, or how we do things. That is setting ourselves up for failure. The way out then is to change our identity and how we perceive ourselves. Because, at the end of the day, the self is the easiest person to fool. Great leaders practice that, some consciously, some subconsciously.

There is a very simple and practical guide on the theme by James Clear.

Insight #3: Joy

When imagination and commitment are wedded, joy is inevitable. That is what allows an individual to shake off failures and move to the next task on hand with a wry sense of humour. As Quixote tells Sancho after yet another failure: “There is a remedy for everything in life except death."

All of this sounds good on paper. But it was written in a different context and a different era. I wondered if it amounts to balderdash like “The universe is mirrored in spontaneous creativity?" (PS: To receive more such wisdom, click here).

To be fair to March, he admits, “I am not an intellectual historian and least of all a historian myself..." That got me wondering whether or not his interpretations would stand up to microscopic scrutiny. It is one thing to have an opinion; it is another thing to have an opinion built on the back of solid evidence.

While I was at it, I stumbled upon The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority, an essay authored by that utterly eccentric Nassim Nicholas Taleb. On first read, Taleb’s essay came across as a rant and pissed me off. But those familiar with Taleb will acknowledge that he does not rant without reason. So, I gave it a second go. The obnoxious man had a mountain of evidence on his side. And damn right he is.

The sum and substance of what he has to say is: The minority, who are inevitably the most vocal, get their way. He starts by asking a provocative question. “Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?"

He then dives into economics, statistics, stock markets, philosophy, religion and morality to drive home his point that “... an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw it, it will eventually destroy our world."

To cite a few instances, he argues:

“A kosher (or halal) eater will never eat non-kosher (or non-halal) food, but a non-kosher isn’t banned from eating kosher." That is why in most parts of the First World, though the population of people that consume kosher meat is ridiculously low, they have to comply with what the minority demands because the minority is an incredibly raucous lot.

“Or, rephrased in another domain," he continues, “A disabled person will not use the regular bathroom but a non-disabled person will use the bathroom for the disabled people."

Come to think of it, even those of us in an insensitive India are now sensitized to the issue. Imagine any able person in a crowded mall walking into a packed loo waiting for his turn when there is there an unused, albeit “reserved" utility for the differently abled.

Logic dictates this unused resource be deployed to where it is needed the most. But it isn’t. Humans are irrational creatures and the minority prevails.

Right now, for instance, there is a debate raging on whether or not beef ought to be banned. I do not have anything to add to the debate save what has already been articulated in Mint earlier in a rigorously researched article headlined Who are the beef eaters in India? which puts things into perspective.

Suffice to say, the debate has been hijacked by a vocal minority who claim they represent the majority.

In his essay, Taleb provides rigorous evidence to prove “... it is the most intolerant person who imposes virtues on others precisely because of that intolerance."

What had escaped me until then was Taleb’s larger point or “The Minority Rule" as he calls it: “… all it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly."

When looked at from that prism, the likes of Don Quixote are part of a minority. In other words, leaders are rare. They are in the minority. And it is incumbent on leaders to be vocal and as pig-headed as Quixote. Silence is not an option. If we choose that, we choose monotony over creativity, commitment and joy.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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