Today, I’m taking a different angle on leadership, looking at another unlikely leadership lesson from the idealistic individualist Chris McCandless, whose off-the-grid Alaskan adventure ended in starvation, and sparked a novel and film, Into the Wild. Author Jon Krakauer posted a recent blog at the New Yorker describing the biochemistry of McCandless’ tragic death.
Krakauer tells a fascinating story about wild potato seeds, toxic for McCandless although normally harmless.
But the most interesting part of the article in terms of contemporary leadership mythologies was the passionate debate in the comments about whether the tragic young man is a hero or a fool, a role model or an object lesson. This same debate happens whenever any visionary leader fails. It’s a classic opposition — are we fools or heroes? There’s never an easy answer.
There are two basic responses to McCandless’ death in the blog commentaries.
First, he’s a hero, an idealist whose independence and sense of adventure inspires us to reach for our dreams. In this idea, his death was a terrible accident, a tragedy that cut a great life short.
One of the most eloquent arguments for the young man’s heroism came from @thornhill, who connects McCandless failed trek to the great environmentalist John Muir’s transformational journeys. He wrote: “McCandless’ naivety is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the same naivety that caused John Muir to literally walk from Wisconsin to Alabama and then from San Francisco to Yosemite with little more outdoor experience than McCandless. Both had a love of nature, a desire to test themselves, and a longing to find true freedom. The same naivety in both men but Muir is revered and McCandless is lambasted because he was unlucky enough to eat the wrong nut.”
A second opinion, that McCandless was a foolish adventurer whose story should be a warning and not an inspiration, comes mainly from Alaskans. This group argues that too many people underestimate the dangers of nature, coming to Alaska or other wild places and dying because of their ignorance.
Every year people die in Alaska. They die of bear attacks and exposure, falls from mountains and by drowning in glacier-fed rivers. Each one of these individuals made a mistake, or series of mistakes, that contributed to their death. This is not romantic.
“Was Chris McCandless a hero? Well, put it this way: I’d hate to have him for a hiking partner. There are many young people working hard to change the world, not just themselves. It’s time to write and talk about them.”
The problem with thinking about leaders as heroes is that none of us are Superman, so failure is inevitable. The more innovative and outside-the-box we are as visionaries, the more risk we take on. So, in fact, we are always both heroic and foolish, whether we succeed or fail.
We see the false opposition of these ideas in the debate about McCandless, whose death and subsequent celebrity made him both a role model and a “Darwin Award” nominee. A more mature understanding of his story, and the story we’re telling about visionary leadership, would accept both foolishness and heroism as part of a profoundly human journey instead of insisting on the larger-than-life oppositions of idiot and genius, demon and angel.
It’s easy to praise the heroism of visionary leaders who succeed in changing the world, often at a price to their own security and health. When risk pays off, we get to be heroes, transforming the courageous foolishness that made our achievement possible.
When we fail, it’s a lot harder to remember our heroic leap we took. We feel like fools, and the world confirms it. Our efforts often end in obscurity. Our sacrifices seem to cost more than we ever imagined.
But transformational leadership, in success and failure, requires the willingness to be heroic fools. To tell only one side of that remarkable choice shrinks our understanding, and weakens the leadership stories we live as a result.