Lessons in Leadership from Don Quixote

Courtesy of abudoma

One of the greatest fictional works in the late 16th century by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote tells the story of a seemingly deranged middle-aged retiree in his 50s who became obsessed with tales of knighthood, fantasy and chivalry. Living in the beautiful wine-producing region of La Mancha in Spain, Alonso Quixano took on the fictional name of Don Quixote de la Mancha, rode his trusty horse, and went on various escapades battling illusory monsters - who are actually windmills - and imagining herds of sheep to be cavalry soldiers to be reckoned with.

Accompanied by his short, fat and salt-of-the-earth accomplice Panza, the thin, wiry and ever optimistic Don Quixote set out on various adventures, always with the aim of winning the heart of a neighbouring farm girl whom he christened Dulcinea del Toboso and imagined as a princess. Don Quixote was so well-loved in the literary world that the term quixotic, which means indulging in unrealistic and impractical idealism, was coined after him.

In a video I watched recently produced by Stanford professor James March titled Passion and Discipline, he shared  three principles of leadership encapsulated by the tale of the man from La Mancha. It was interesting to see how the foremost organisational theorist drew parallels between Don Quixote's misadventures and what leadership is all about. A longer description of this video can be found at the Wisdom Portal by Peter Y Chou.

What are the three lessons in leadership?

The first is Imagination, a scarce virtue in the hyper pragmatic 21st Century (especially during a recession).  Don Quixote was not just dreaming about those characters but he firmly believed in them and visualised them to be so.  In his mind, the reality is less what others thought they were, but what he himself imagined and believe them to be.

In the same way, good leaders need to go beyond the ordinary and to have the vision and moral courage to pursue something that is unconventional.  They need to hold on clearly to that Big Hairy and Audacious Goal (BHAG) and stick to it despite what others may be saying.  That is the first step to greatness.

The second virtue is Commitment and here there is a need for one to be committed to one's own will, committed to beauty (or the purity of one's own goals), and a dogged persistence.  Here, it is important to disregard to some extent the law of consequences in the world, and to have a deeply rooted sense of self that goes beyond the externalities of one's world.  

Commitment can come in the form of a strong stick-to-itiveness to whatever one believes strongly in, and to bring honour to that cause. It means that one should have a road map that one sticks to, and energy and passion to keep going down that cause even when times are hard.

Finally, and probably most importantly, it is vital to have Joy in one's pursuit.  A sense of humour and an ability to laugh off life's failures and get over them is vital.  Despite being ridiculed, attacked and scorned, Don Quixote never gave up on his end goals.  He found joy in engagement and being involved in the action, struggle and injuries of pursuit.  There is also a constant sense of affirmation and true enjoyment in what he does.

I was deeply inspired by these simple lessons of what it means to be a leader, and this is well captured by the video's title "Passion and Discipline".  Of course, many would think that it is tomfoolery for one to merely embrace Don Quixote's principles whole-heartedly without considering their consequences, but there is a lot of truth in March's words if you think about them.  

In life, one needs to have a clear vision and goal - sometimes the more outlandish the better, so that if you shoot for the stars, you would at least land on the moon.  One also needs to be able to stay on one's course of action through thick and thin, good times and bad, if its something that one fervently believes in.  And it is important to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and to relish every scratch and wound which comes along the way.  

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