On The Importance of Leadership: A Review of Nathan Harter’s “Leadership Across Boundaries”
Nathan Harter. Leadership Across Boundaries: A Passage to Aporia. New York: Routledge Press, 2020.   I teach in a department with leadership in its name. Presumably, we are tasked with teaching students how to be leaders by teaching them what leadership is. Even in my classes on US foreign policy, class discussion always turns to… The post On The Importance of Leadership: A Review of Nathan Harter’s “Leadership Across Boundaries” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Nathan Harter. Leadership Across Boundaries: A Passage to Aporia. New York: Routledge Press, 2020.


I teach in a department with leadership in its name. Presumably, we are tasked with teaching students how to be leaders by teaching them what leadership is. Even in my classes on US foreign policy, class discussion always turns to the question of leadership. From Zelenskyy’s rise as a global leader in his management of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion, to historical examples from the Cold War, students are keen to know how they too can be great leaders, not just “in charge.” To teach these concepts is no easy task, in no small part because of its amorphous characteristic. How much of Churchill’s success was due to the man himself, for example, and how much to forces which would have helped anyone in his circumstances? The same goes for leaders in other domains of human activity: sports leadership, business leadership, and political leadership are the most common ways of describing the concept, but each modifies it with the narrower domain of sports, business, and politics. Indeed, to think of leadership simply (viz., leadership qua leadership), raises more ambiguity and confusion because so little is known about leadership in a simplified, abstract manner.
Nathan Harter’s Leadership Across Boundaries: A Passage to Aporia seeks to remedy these and related points of confusion among scholars of leadership. For Harter, leadership is not a subject which we understand by accumulating knowledge, partitioning it into ever more discrete subdomains of specialization. We learn physics by first mastering mathematics, through calculus, and then begin to learn the formulae of Newton, before advancing—for those who advance beyond Newtonian Mechanics—to quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces follow this model. But leadership is not physics. That distinction, however, does not mean that leadership cannot be learned, nor categorized; nor does it mean that scholars of leadership, as Harter is, cannot specialize and understand the subject comprehensively. What it does mean, for Harter, is that a distinct approach is needed, one that relies on metaphor and analogy to show us the truth of things, “figuratively and not literally.”
Readers should welcome the use of metaphor and analogy, for they are more common to learning than they are often acknowledged. Here the book shines. Robert Nisbet contended that scientific models were not much more than a metaphor which assist the individual from learning about something unknown through the medium of what is known. The use of metaphor and analogy advance many of the central claims of the book. Chiefly, Harter suggests that leadership as a subject may be an illusion. Leadership is akin to the quantum particle which neither exists as a wave or particle until it is measured. Once measured it takes on properties of either the waveform or particle. But, importantly, if the quantum particle had been measured with different tools, those particles appear different.
This characteristic of leadership weakens our grasp of understanding because the method of investigation changes what is observed. Harter’s reliance on a variety of metaphors, analogies, and case studies is best thought of as a strategy for strengthen our grasp. Indeed, understood in this light, the question of which metaphors and examples becomes much more important to the goal of reaching, and traversing aporia.
Leadership Across Boundaries begins by relying on the idea of a map. Leaders have mental maps of their world (politics, business, sports); they rely on these maps to make decisions, to motivate their followers, and to think through challenges. In many ways, roadblocks to achieving the collective goal to which leaders strive might best be understood though the map metaphor as areas which are uncharted. Good leaders find ways to acquire new maps, to chart the unknown, or at least to know the appropriate map to rely on when confronted with new challenges. I should stress that the metaphor of maps is quickly abandoned, lest readers rely too heavily on maps-as-models. Leadership studies has, as far as I can tell, moved away from the great man (or great woman) idea of leadership because it too quickly decays into a myopic view of the subject. Harter’s refusal to rely on one metaphor too long reflects his sensitivity to the risk that any one model might also produce a similarly myopic understanding of leadership.
I could not help but read Harter’s book as a possible solution to an (seemingly) intractable problem. The Trump years strained America’s civic fabric, and in doing so, laid bare the moral and political chasm which separate the political right and left in the US. To say this is neither new nor original. But it is worth pointing out that at least one central cause of the intractability of the problem is a failure of leadership. Great leaders bring with them moral purpose, and they motivate others to join them in that purpose. But our leaders (if they can even be called that) have motivated their followers into rarefied camps of extremes. We no longer have dialogue, but hyperbole.
Harter’s discussion of leadership as dialogue punctuates this insight. Dialogue is a distinct, ephemeral activity which requires two participants who are motivated to come to understanding rather than to win a debate or persuade a multitude unchallenged. The chapter on dialogue has several examples, but the mention of Martin Buber stands out. Buber welcomed dialogue with adversaries. He did not assume that dialogue occurred only between those who already agreed, or mostly so. Rather, for Buber (and Harter), dialogue is a mode of co-constituting leadership between the interlocutors. If the method could be replicated, and then scaled, such that more Americans could have genuine dialogue, much of the calcified hostilities might be alleviated.
To speak of dialogue, however, raises the idea of aporia—an idea first developed in Plato and central to the book. Harter wants to lead us to aporia, to a moment not of confusion but of impasse so that as he leads us out, we have a fuller appreciation of what leadership is than we could have prior to reading Leadership Across Boundaries. But this method brings with it many trade-offs and limitations to the book.
Chiefly, the reader investment is high. The opening chapters move from one example (Martin Luther) to another (Common Law) to tease out the central puzzle of the agent-structure problem, a dilemma common to many social science disciplines. But reading those two chapters back-to-back was at times disorienting. Harter returns to the Luther-Common Law examples halfway through the book to unpack their significance. It was a welcomed summary but betrays Harter’s motives and goals. For if a summary is necessary, then it admits the early chapters needed more clarity and refinement; if not, why not cut them and spend more time developing yet more themes, metaphors, and analogies for readers?
The irony of this shortcoming is that its root cause is human finitude, a recurrent theme of the book. The reason aporia exists at all—in Platonic dialogues and in human experience alike—is because of these limits of what it means to be human. Harter puts it best: “Our perspective always limits us.” The book would have been stronger if the number of metaphors were pruned, perhaps moving some of them to footnotes or an appendix for readers to reflect on after reading the core of the book. As it stands, at times it was rough going for me, and I suspect casual readers might abandon the book before making sufficient progress to get the point.
Nevertheless, Leadership Across Boundaries brings many of these metaphors into new light. One example worth highlighting here is Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox. In Berlin’s (in)famous metaphor, the contrast of the fox and hedgehog suggest two distinct leadership types. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the ancient aphorism goes. For Berlin, they represent modes of thinking, of historical thought. These typologies are not mutually exclusive, and leaders of all types have attributes of each.
But where Berlin saw a synoptic vs “mono-optic” approaches to human agency, Harter sees the idealist and realist. Idealists are visionaries who are unconcerned with the world “as it is” because they strive to make the world “as it ought to be.” Realists in contrast take the world as it is and look to accomplish what is doable within the imposed constraints. If the challenges present to both are like knots on a string, “the realist tries patiently to disentangle the knot” while the “idealist would sooner cut [it] with a knife.” Neither of these typologies is strictly better ex ante. Idealists are imaginative, but they risk fanaticism. Realists are pragmatic, but at times narrowly satisfactory rather than courageously ambitious.
Again, the application to pathological polarization is more apt than ever. Dueling idealists cum fanatics on the fridge of American right and left refuse to concede anything, preferring to demonizing everyone and anyone who does not go along. What seems needed to escape our current predicament is a realist with the rhetoric of an idealist, one who can inspire voters but who can do so in a way that untangles the knots rather than cuts the thread that binds us. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, Harter gestured as much when muses whether Aikido or meditation serve as better modalities for electoral politics than the rancor of the knuckle brawls of partisanship.
This past spring, I taught a course on political leadership and statesmanship. In my department, that means a small seminar in the usual suspects (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox), and some less likely, but nevertheless fruitful readings (Robert Kaufman’s biography of Henry “Scoop” Jackson being chief among them). The scope of the course precluded assigning Harter’s book, but I had the book at my side throughout the term. Even the more difficult and problematic sections enlightened me as I prepared for seminar each week. And I found myself drawing comparative lessons, from my class, to Harter, and back again. Anyone casually researching and teaching on leadership will do well to at least consult this contribution; and depending on the course it might make a solid contribution to the reading list. For dedicated scholars of leadership, this book is worth their time and investment.

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