Teaching leadership?

“It’s some slippery stuff”

by John Dudley ’95

As he is wont to do sometimes, Dr. Alan Farrell, now a brigadier general and professor of French at Virginia Military Institute and forever a distinctive and cherished part of Hampden-Sydney College history, returned to the College to impart his unique breed of wisdom to another group of impressionable young men.

Alan Farrell nowHe was invited by the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest to discuss the notion of “teaching leadership.” By dipping into some of his personal experiences, including the time he spent fighting in Vietnam, Dr. Farrell shared his insight into leadership—studied, practiced, habitualized—and assured the young men that learning (and teaching) leadership is “some slippery stuff.”

Dr. Farrell was kind enough to share his speaking draft with me so that the rest of us might find a steady hand as we navigate our own slippery path toward being a leader.

Leadership requires knowledge, says Farrell, and the wisdom to know when knowledge is not enough. In rappelling, for example, a leader must have not only the knowledge to understand the science of the situation, which contributes to his or her decision to step over the edge, but also the ability to convert that knowledge into action.

“When you stand up there and peer down the face of that cliff and beyond into the valley, it looks like forever,” says Farrell. “You can rehearse in your mind your Physics class and the laws of Static Mechanics and Newton’s Second and the Stretch Modulus of 9/16-inch righthand-twist three-strand braided nylon cord (as we call “rope” in the Army) and on and on. It still looks like forever. You will doubt. That’s where the leader becomes a leader. That’s where leadership is the simple but unavoidable business of taking the first step … first, off into the void. Follow me. That, in a word, is the leader: the one who understands the human being’s rights and promise in a physical, circumscribed world, but who has the plain ol’ vanilla nerve just to take the first step out there into the unknown to prove it.”

“I say ‘understands’ the human being’s rights. I do not say ‘accepts’ them. A manager’s job, an administrator’s job, is to recognize those rights, organize them, account for them, forecast them, world without end. But the manager, the administrator, remains bounded by that physical universe and the concrete limit of things. Leaders can and do contest nature, defy nature, ignore nature and the confinement of the here and now. You can’t change the odds, but you can beat them. Knowing when and where and how—and with whom—is the miracle of leadership, the challenge of leadership. Why it’s so elusive. Why managers and administrators work for leaders and patiently explain the real world to them and fume when the leader ignores their constrictions, hesitations, reservations.”

“Told you it’s some slippery stuff.”

Dr. Farrell shared a story from Vietnam, November 1968, when he got his first operation, his first command. He was ordered to take his unit across a river—a vulnerable expanse—to find what’s left of the enemy. “Not much strategy to be worked out here,” recalled Farrell. “I put one 79 and the M-60 in battery on this side, wave my [Montagnards] apart, say goodbye to Mom, and step out first into the gurgling water.” Slowly he made his way across the river, waiting for a burst of fire from the other side, waiting for an ambush that never happened. A story that took just seconds to tell “took forever to live.”

“Most of all—oddly if you like—I remember going first, though I don’t remember deciding to go first. No thought. No time. No plan. Just an ugly job and dangerous. What to do is go first. And never look sideways. And never look back. And never doubt that my fourteen so dang strikers are there. Because I’ve lived with them and beside them and shown them the kind of small fidelities human beings value: respect, solicitude, good humor, forthrightness, endurance. Integrity, in a word.”

Not all leadership comes from being first, first over the edge or into danger. Days later, on that same mission, as Farrell recalls, he led from the back by being the last man to board helicopters leading his unit from danger to safety. “Not that my silly gesture changes the risk or the threat. But last sometimes is the place for a leader. Slow sometimes is the pace for a leader. Taking up the rear sometimes is the role of a leader. Not that log chain Patton was talking about but maybe an anchor. So I step back. And the ’Yards stay back with me. All of this wordless. I feed them into the aircraft. I jump on last and we blow that lousy, bloody, smoke-shrouded clearing.”

These moments, these bits of time when leaders are distinguished from the crowd, do not come by chance. Leaders prepare for these moments by studying leadership—yes—but Farrell says we must also practice leadership, develop habits of leadership, so that when the time comes, there is no hesitation in our leadership. Developing these habits is a what Farrell calls “leading from the middle.” Leading from the middle is important because, as only Dr. Farrell can say: “You’re gonna be in the middle a lot longer that you’ll be on top—sorry to tell you—a mediator between that bonehead who commands you and the squirrels you command.”

For Farrell, this idea of leading from the middle came from another military moment, not a moment in the heat of battle but a moment flanked by the ordinary. He and two buddies were back at their base relaxing. One was in his bunk listening to music; the other was cleaning his gun. Farrell stood by the door. Suddenly the gun went off, sending a shot past Farrell’s head, through the door, and into the night sky.

Alan Farrell then“Well, next thing the Recon Company First Sergeant bursts in the door,” says Farrell. “Heard the shot and came barreling over across the compound to see what’s what. Looks at Joe, upright, legs now dangling off the bunk, Roy sitting on his ammo crate, rifle back on its wall pegs, hole in the door, me standing in middle of the room. Takes in the whole scene. A second. He says: ‘Well … I know Farrell didn’t do it.’ Lumbers back out into the night. Dunno why, but I’m prouder of those few words than all my degrees and badges. Leadership from the middle. Lousy little E-4 corporal, but an E-4 corporal that Firs’sarn knew to be squared away, serious about soldiering, wrapped tight, so you could see it despite the crowd. But, hadn’t been for my buddy’s carelessness, Firs’sarn never woulda said anything to me. Took a near tragedy to shake out of a very good man that testimonial that he hadn’t thought necessary before—his idea of a compliment.”

It was clear to Farrell then why he was given so much extra work—taking inventory, writing reports, going on extra patrols. It was not that his Sergeant had it out for him. On the contrary, he trusted him. He knew that Corporal Farrell was a man among men and responded in turn with extra responsibility, extra opportunity to learn, to grow, and to be an example for others.

As Corporal Farrell continued to rise through the ranks, he continued working on his leadership skills. He continued working on his leadership habits, continued putting those habits into action until he didn’t know the difference any longer. You can read about leaders all day long. You can consider leadership until you are blue in the face. The teaching and the learning are pointless without the courage to put integrity and honor into action. The practice pays off when doing the right thing seems wrong or dangerous.

Again Farrell says, “… in the end—we call it a ‘long story about a quick decision,’ why I made Master Sergeant twice and why I’m not Dean of VMI any more—it may take the form of standing up to a guy with leaves or eagles or stars one day or a guy in a $5000 suit one day, when you’re right and he’s not. Disregard for self, for personal safety, or for ambition. The simple nerve to be first—or last, whichever no one else wants to be.”

So, can you teach leadership? After all is said and done and said again, what does Alan Farrell think? “I dunno,” he told that assembly of impressionable young students. “You’ll know better’n I do. You can talk about it. Read about it. Show movies about it. You can invite corporate CEOs and growly old generals to come blather about it. You can mistake success for leadership, just as you can mistake achievement for honor. But can you teach leadership? I dunno. So, I hadda answer my general: You can demonstrate it, sir, that’s for sure. You can practice it, sir. And you can get used to the loneliness on the leader’s side of the aisle.”

Leadership certainly is some slippery stuff.