Memo to Hillary: Neither an Actor nor a Reactor Be

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.


14 Responses to Memo to Hillary: Neither an Actor nor a Reactor Be

  1. Ariel says:

    Leadership based on principles, service, and a balanced world view – what a needed concept for today’s politicians on either side of the divide! There are many, many politicians and few great statesmen it seems, and you’ve identified a key reason why.

    This brought back a lot of memories of the fire service and of how easy it can be for decision makers to overemphasize the actor role. Having to continually make tough, split-second choices in the midst of the chaos of an emergency incident (where others must obey) can lead incident commanders to develop an inflated view of themselves and to continue to use the same strategies back in quarters. Just as in the political arena, too often the kind of humility and sacrifice that Washington exemplifies gets lost or never even develops. Great post!

  2. Barry Brownstein says:


    I really like your fire service example but I would ask: Are they really being an “actor” when those emergency split-second decisions are necessary? Or are they allowing Wholeness to flow through them?

    We can go back one more step in our quest to understand why there are currently so few statesmen. There is little demand from the public for such people. Sadly too much of the public is focused on which politician can promise the most in 30 second sound bites.

    Homeowners who don’t want to save and are upset when their homes no longer appreciate 30% a year. Corporations that demand subsidies for wasteful fuels such as ethanol. I could go on. The point is though that Hillary and the many others like her, can only reflect the current collective state of consciousness of voters.

  3. Ariel says:

    Oh absolutely to the need for the public to demand more from the politicians and from themselves! Just as those who seek to be public servants should aspire to the highest principles. Ideally, there would be a positive, mutually reinforcing synergy between the representative and the represented. We’re all creating this together; it can be bliss or a nightmare, our collective choice.

    And, yes, the best Incident commanders do indeed work in that state of flow from the Source, something I go into in more detail about here. They blend education and experience, integrity and intuition, to achieve their results both on the fireground and back at the station.

    I think that the truly great leaders in any field realize that they are just one link in the chain, neither the authoritarian apex of the pyramid nor a merely reactive manager of circumstance. They choose to put themselves at the service of the higher good, never forgetting that it takes a whole team to put out a fire, send men to the moon, govern a country, or run a business.

  4. Ariel says:

    Forgot to say that the “actor” part comes in if an IC allows the authority necessary during emergency operations to twist into arrogance and to taint his attitudes and actions at other times. If he allows Wholeness to flow through him, on and off the fire scene, that won’t happen.

  5. Barry Brownstein says:


    Your thoughtful words: “I think that the truly great leaders in any field realize that they are just one link in the chain, neither the authoritarian apex of the pyramid nor a merely reactive manager of circumstance.” immediately brought to mind T.H. White’s at the end of his wonderful telling of the King Arthur story, The Once and Future King: “The fate of this man or that was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.”

    May we all be a “sparkling one” in the sea that unites us all.

  6. Robert W. Gast, Jr. says:

    Ariel mentioned something that should not be passed over. In fact, I believe it is explanantory for why, as Dr. Brownstein observes, there are no outstanding leaders today in the public sector.

    Ariel references the “… higher good.” Inherent in his post is a paradigm that literally goes unchallenged in public discourse. The paradigm I am refereing to is this concept of the common good.

    Once people start to subordinate individual authenticity in the name of the “common good” we create organizations, relationships, political systems and econcomic systems that force us into becoming either actor or audience, governing or governed, owner or worker.

    To sustain themselves in this kind of order, politicians, labor unions, companies… (please – fill in with your choice) have created a taxis of complicated self-serving rules to the continue the illusion that they are serving the common good.

    Now, of course, there ARE many exceptions to this in all areas. Moreover, when I speak of the common good, I am not referring to things like rules of the road, basic laws to protect property rights (the basis for capitalistic enterprise) and such. For these are the natural results of individuals seeking their own orders.

    Driven by short segment media sound-bites that are driven by advertising dollars that are driven by an ever overloaded, overstretched, stressed-out, attention deficit public who are driven by a media that needs to create short segment sound bites to get the needed eyeballs for ratings, our politicians (Hillary, of course included) have great risk in speaking against the great illusion of the common good.

    Remember that the greatest leaders have always emerged from ridicule and impossible odds by standing against the norms of their times. We have yet to see such a leader in the public sector with the humility and authenticity to challenge the unchallenged norms and create a courageous dialouge about root causes to our most fundamental problems that have only been getting worse.

    Of course, it is precisely the belief that we need to wait for such a leader that will ensure that such a leader will never emerge.

    Bob G.

  7. Barry Brownstein says:

    Great comment Bob. I appreciate the connection that you drew between the workplace and our political systems. Richard Cornuelle, in his book De-Managing America showed us the systemic relationship between the worker trapped in a rigid hierarchy and their societal attitudes:

    There is little in their (workers) daily experience which would cause them to conclude that society is kept alive by a continuous process of adaptation, led by enterprising people. They are bound to see society as something static- something to be administered. Employed people can scarcely be expected to revere qualities that they have been carefully instructed to repress. They tend to become what the work requires: politicized, unimaginative, unenterprising, petty, security-obsessed and passive.

  8. Ariel says:

    Hi Bob –

    Notice that I said “higher good,” as opposed to “common good.” A deliberate choice of words and one that implies a need for discourse and tough decisions on the part of all involved. The higher good is neither the easy, rose-lined path nor the desperate declarations that “hey, everything’s fine, this really isn’t a handbasket that we’re in!”

    The highest good is precisely the path that demands the utmost from all of us – both in knowing ourselves and in serving the good of others – and this most especially from those who would lead. Just because of the sheer numbers involved, it takes tremendous effort to exert change from within the mass; yet one great leader can inspire the masses to extraordinary outcomes.

    I agree that suborning the individual authenticity is counterproductive, just as is allowing individual’s self interests to prey upon the authentic needs of the whole. Therein lies the rub, and the opportunity for democratic discourse.

    Interestingly enough, the very number of exceptions you mention points to the fact that you are confusing terms and talking about more than one thing. There are “common goods” that benefit us all – the rules of the road and basic property laws you mention, things that certainly benefit the one and the many – and the “higher goods” that will lead many to whine that the road is too hard and demands too much of them. You should have heard the moaning at the fire department when fitness standards were raised! Yet that decision by leadership benefitted every single firefighter there and the public we served. It certainly was unpopular, though!

    Then there are those so-called “common goods” that you mention, those “goods” that are in no way good, but that are unfortunately all too common. We need a new term, I think, so we can call those pandering platitudes that serve only their perpetuators (or the perpetrators, perhaps?) for what they really are. Whatever term we coin, I vote for it starting with a “P!” 🙂

    You’re absolutely right that the great leaders of the past examined and bucked the accepted norms of the day, no matter the personal cost. This is the outward demonstration of a true leader’s commitment to the highest outcome as opposed to the common good, the entrenched norm, or to personal benefit. (Though one could argue that virtue is it’s own reward, and sometimes it’s the only one!)

    I liked your point that if we believe we need to wait for a great leader, that person will not emerge. Well said. It goes right back to Barry’s insight that we each need to step forward and be the best leader, in whatever arena, at whatever level, that we can be. Be that “sparkling” one. He was far more literate and poetic about it, though, than I am being.

    I’m enjoying our conversations here. It’s proof that at least some people are thinking and questioning and not sitting by passively consuming media drivel! Perhaps there’s hope for democracy yet. 🙂


  9. Ariel says:

    An apology to Bob if I missed the mark a bit by saying he was confusing terms. On looking at his post again (I’m feeling behind the curve here. I have to keep going off line to read and to write because of thunderstorms.) I think he does make the basic distinction, but we are both hitting the limits of our language on what to call the rampant cultural misuses and manipulations of the term “common good.”

    I really like Barry’s point about the mental conditioning of the employed! By way of an example, learning to take command is one of the hardest things facing a firefighter who becomes an officer. It can be an incredibly difficult transition. Learning how to initiate action based on a broadened understanding of dynamic processes is something many people don’t seem to want or to be able to acquire.

    Contrast that with the more fluid structure that some of my friends at W.L. Gore are a part of. They are happier employees, more productive, and seem to find it easier to think outside of the old boxes. They tend to take more initiative because it is encouraged and supported by the company’s basic structure.

    Which leads me to politely request a post from Barry…how about some reflections sometime on how we best learn (and teach) leadership?

  10. Barry Brownstein says:


    That is a good idea for a future post. The opening pages of my book The Inner-Work of Leadership deals with why traditional leadership programs are usually not effective.

  11. Bob Gast says:

    “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
    the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would would have come his way.”

    – W.N. Murray

    Committment overcomes tepid fear-based movements towards any goal whether it be political office, a patent for an idea, a book that is unpublished, an apology long overdue, a new financing proposal for expansion or a myriad of other human activities.
    If we are not committed, we cannot be agents of change. We can only be pretenders who are more afraid of losing than in seeking that which our inner voice calls us to seek.

    Leadership that is committed to maintaining office and self-perpetuation will never know something greater than the status-quo.

    It is true that people who are dissatisfied with the status-quo continue to support the very status-quo that they claim to detest. However, an emerging “governing” class has created enough complex rules and systems to preclude committment to principle over self-interest.

    Fear based actions by our current political leaders will continue to give us more of the same and as long as the people who elect continue to buy into the illusion their fear based choices will carry the day.

    Bob G.

  12. Barry Brownstein says:


    I have always loved that Murray quote; so much so that while going through the current round of editing of my book, I found I had inadvertently used it three times. 🙂

  13. […] but it was author Barry Brownstein’s exhortation to be a “sparkling one” in a comment that tipped the balance for me concerning my next […]

  14. retro says:

    As much as I’d like to see a woman president, I don’t trust Hillary as far as I can throw her.

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