John Peavoy was a high school friend of Hillary Clinton. After they went off to college they exchanged dozens of letters. These letters were saved by John and The New York Times last Sunday reported on the contents of some of them.
The letters are really not much out of the ordinary, but one thing did catch my eye. Hillary asked John in a disdainful manner: “Are you satisfied with the part you have cast yourself in?” She goes on: “It seems that you have decided to become a reactor rather than actor — everything around will determine your life.”
Hillary’s belief that being an actor is superior to being a reactor is one that many people share. Indeed, it is a universal belief among dangerous and authoritarian leaders. Many falsely believe that being an “actor” is mark of an individualist.
We can all agree with Hillary that continually reacting to life is a tedious place to be. Eckhart Tolle humorously points out that when we live life in this manner “life becomes one damn thing after another.” When one problem is solved, another problem simply pops up to take its place.
But Hillary’s idea that one can live a life where everything around us should not help to determine our life is absurd. In her book Leadership Can Be Taught Sharon Parks reports that when she asked Harvard Business School students if they thought people were affected by their social contexts, they typically answered yes. But when asked if they were affected by their social context, they found this suggestion disturbing. They argued that they were exceptions to the rule.
The fact that so many potential leaders believed that they are exceptions to the rule is disturbing. This belief is a refection of what Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek calls “false individualism.” False individualists see themselves as some kind of super-human who should be in charge of shaping the environment around them, rather than allow the environment to help inform and guide their choices. They have an exaggerated belief in the powers of their own abilities and the power of their own mind. As a consequence they have contempt for anything they didn’t think of.
Leaders who hold such beliefs are determined to mold an organization or society to their “superior” visions. Other voices are obstacles to be overcome.
In contrast, according to Hayek, a “true individualist” has “an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual mind.” This consciousness “induces an attitude of humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help to create things greater than they know.”
This humility is an essential quality for an effective leader to have, for as Hayek has observed, “Many of the greatest things man has achieved are not the result of consciously directed thought…but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand.” Hayek’s words are a bitter pill for someone who believes that they are a take-charge “actor.”
Jesus provided a powerful pointer about the dangers of being an “actor” when he instructed, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” In other words, the lily doesn’t need to want for anything. The totality of life, which we can call Wholeness, wants the lily to grow. The lily, not seeing itself separate from Wholeness, has no other will. The lily does not need to be an actor or a reactor.
Consider George Washington as he became one of the leaders of a new republic, first in the Revolutionary War and then later as president. He had to shed his former identity as an “actor” concerned about his career, his finances, and his land-holdings. During his time in public service, he sacrificed much of his wealth and health.
George Washington had no separate will other than to be of service to the American Revolution. More than anything else, George Washington served others in the pursuit of a common vision.
Because he had no separate will, Washington became a great general and statesman. He was not a mere politician. A politician is driven by her or his personal will, separate from the will of the Whole. The life of a politician is filled with conflict and manipulation.
There is a third way, Hillary—neither an actor nor reactor be. Trust your place in the larger scheme of things. Don’t manipulate others, don’t behave with an aura of arrogant entitlement, don’t be a narcissist who engages in endless self-promotion, and don’t demand that others gratify your needs.
A disclaimer: If you think that much of this column could have been written about many other politicians, I agree with you completely. America does not need another leader bending the country to his or her will; rather, we need leaders that are stewards of the great principles that help to found and grow this country.