Followership

One of the overlooked themes in my latest novel, Island No. 6, is the awful burden of leadership. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Those in positions of leadership, both in the novel and in real life, are regularly taxed with making unpopular decisions based on far-less-than-certain data and with wildly unpredictable results in the offing. Thankfully, there are still those men and women who bravely seek out the mantle of leadership despite this burden. In fact, I would argue that most of our current organizations do not suffer so much from a lack of leadership but from a lack of followership. Please, do not mistake my point, healthy debate is always positive, and we should never conflate dissent for disloyalty, but our current lack of trust in our leaders has been so eroded by tribalism and a general unwillingness to follow that consensus and progress have become almost impossible throughout a wide range of societal endeavors.

Books, seminars, courses, entire organizations devoted to teaching leadership skills are ubiquitous in modern America; however, I cannot think of one such forum dedicated to teaching and elevating the role of the follower. It has traditionally been, but increasingly wrongfully assumed, that the masses will naturally muster, fall in line, and willingly accept marching orders from their leaders without having received similar training in how to follow, but those were different days, and I wholly support everyone’s thinking for oneself and calling out authority whenever it acts in opposition to the best interests of the many. In our current milieu, however, too many people’s aversion to leadership appears to be their default position, and it has caused them to assume automatically that any initiative proposed by those in charge is not even worth one’s consideration. I’ve been known to speak out forcefully against authority myself, and I will continue to do so. At the same time, I am proud to consider myself a good soldier when final marching orders are given.

A significant contributor to this modern day problem is the devaluation we have placed on humility. To be a good follower requires one to humbly subordinate his/her own agenda, opinion, ideas, etc. to those in leadership positions. It means sacrificing individual goals and initiatives for the good of the many, and in this egocentric age in which we live, when it is so tempting and easy to broadcast personal thoughts far and wide through any number of social media platforms, selfless acquiescence to leadership is becoming increasingly rare. I cannot reiterate enough that I am NOT promoting blind obedience. I don’t give it, and I don’t expect it in my children or students. The trust necessary to be an effective leader must be earned, but it is also true that those who are to be governed must provide their elected, hired, or promoted leaders with the opportunity to earn that trust.

Just as a shark must continually swim to avoid sinking to the bottom, any organization needs to be constantly moving forward or it will lose its momentum and become stagnant and irrelevant. In order for such progress to occur, there has to come a point at which the debate ends, decisions for the good of the many are made, and the organization moves on to face new challenges. To that end, we must teach, encourage, and reward informed followership and celebrate those whose willingness ultimately to be led makes any group and all progress possible. A delicate balance it is between dissent and acquiescence, but all democratic institutions demand it be struck, for the far-less-attractive alternatives are a chaotic anarchy or a tyrannical autocracy.

The Daughters of Erietown: A Review

One of the most powerful functions of literature is to challenge readers to step outside of their own demographics and to view the world through the eyes of some other category of person. For example, reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy as a young man provided me a modicum of insight into the African-American experience with racism. Similarly, reading Monica Ali’s post-9/11 novel Brick Lane allowed me to imagine the world as seen through a burka. Likewise, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt has inspired many readers to reconsider their understanding of the plight of Central American immigrants seeking safety and opportunity in el norte. It was in this spirit of vicarious experience that I read Connie Schultz’s The Daughters of Erietown.

As a proud male-feminist, which is not an oxymoron, I read TDoE with the conscious purpose of gaining as much understanding of the cross-generational experience of females – at least as lived in working class Northeast Ohio – as possible. Admittedly, it is an amount of understanding that might fill a thimble. Without going into plot detail, TDoE is a story of women of all ages confronted at nearly every turn with men behaving badly. The range of these men’s sins range from the mere tacit condoning of social institutions designed to “keep women in their place” to the horrors of physical abuse.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the novel as man bashing. It is not that. In fact, there are several examples of male characters who rise heroically in opposition to sexist standards and in support of the novel’s females. It is also made clear that men themselves are also victims of an inherited patriarchal system that at least allows for, if not promotes, chauvinistic boorishness or that locks them into prescribed men’s roles and definitions of manliness. Nor does TDoE seek to play the so-called victim card as is made clear by its final protagonist, Sam (Samantha), managing to overcome the many male-made traps set and barriers built to preclude her free agency and to forge a career and a life of her own defining outside of the conventional wife/mother role.

One of the more intriguing attributes of TDoE is the fictional setting of Erietown. It is the home to mostly blue collar, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial families. Anyone raised in any of the many once-industrial cities along the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio will recognize Erietown as their own. The setting is so prominent that it rises to the level of character. It is not merely a backdrop against which the story takes place, it is a shaper of the lives of its inhabitants for better or worse, like another parent, coach, or teacher. It may as well have been the place envisioned by LeBron James when he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” For some, Erietown serves as a place of escape and refuge; for others, that same town is a prison with invisible but unscalable walls surrounding the town.

If forced to criticize for the sake of counter-argument and not to come off as a biased cheerleader for all things Connie Schultz (Which I am.), I would only point out what I thought to be one relatively-weak sub-plot in which Schultz seems to cast her inclusivity net a bit too far by having Sam fall in love with an African-American man. Although the message is a good one, it feels wedged into the plot. Also, at times, the dialogue feels a bit stilted, but the occasional awkwardness of expression is most likely due to much of the story taking place in the past. The diction and syntax of the characters have gone the way of the many Northern Ohio icons Schultz sprinkles lovingly into the text, including Higbee’s Department Store, Lawson’s Convenient Stores, and Stroh’s and Schlitz beers.

The Daughters of Erietown is a novel that will stick with me. It has inspired me to be even more cognizant and appreciative of the extra efforts required of the women in my life, both past and present, just to compete and be appreciated in what is sadly still very much a “man’s” world. More importantly, it is a fictional record and reminder of the many unseen and unheard of acts of courage and will performed every day by women since . . . well . . . forever.

The Monsters We Deserve

The epigraph for my new novel, Island No. 6, is a line from an Our Lady Peace song that states, “We are all innocent.” The truth of that line applies to the situation in the story and in our world today where Nature has unloosed a novel virus “monster” on the population. Governments’ and individuals’ innocence in relation to the spread of the virus may be a different matter, but that is a debate for another arena. The majority of life’s monsters are, however, of our own creation and often of our own deserving, and that has long been my favorite lesson from the English epic Beowulf.

The epic is one of the most anthologized texts in English Literature textbooks. At its most basic, literal level, it is little more than an archetypal story of good conquering evil. The plot is simple: a heretofore underachieving youth suddenly finds his moral center and begins to live up to his promise and lineage. He achieves a heroic, larger-than-life status through deeds requiring extraordinary bravery and strength that become the stuff of legend. In Beowulf, when the monster Grendel begins terrorizing the Danes, Beowulf, according to the heroes’ code, enthusiastically accepts the challenge of ridding the Danish people of their monster, which he does with relative ease and no injury to himself. Thereby, the champion of the Good battles one of its many foes, achieves victory, and establishes Virtue as the proper model for imitation.

My preferred take on the narrative diverges from the commonly-emphasized theme of Good conquering Evil. In my instruction, I choose to focus on the lesson that “We only get the monster(s) we deserve.” According to the epic, the monster, Grendel, is just one in a long list of forms of punishment that God has unloosed on mankind as a punishment for his sins. It is explained that Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, was the catalyst for the race of monsters that haunt the Earth with Grendel being just one of many. The point being that it was man’s own doing that caused the death and destruction wreaked by Grendel. Mankind and the Danes merely get the monster they deserve.

I like to apply this notion to any number of situations in which I observe people complaining about the figurative monsters in their lives. A tendency of which I am no less guilty. We often do so without the slightest sense of responsibility or, sometimes, even awareness of our own role in those monsters’ creations or continuance: parents of their children, spouses of one another, teachers of their students, students of their bully, addicts of their addiction of choice, and citizens of their political leaders. The monsters are many. In most cases, however, there was a time when these monsters were not monsters at all; rather, they were actually cherished by those who they now terrorize. The point being that many of the monsters we fear and that wreak havoc in our lives were transformed into such by either our own actions or by our passive allowance.

The good news is that anything we create, we can also destroy. Even in the telling of horror stories, we never create a monster without also concocting its antidote, a means by which it can be defeated or even cherished once more. The vampire is destroyed by a stake through the heart or exposure to the sun. A werewolf is slain by silver-tipped weapons. The Wicked Witch of the West melts when doused with water. Unlike Beowulf, however, we are real and not larger-than-life. The overcoming of the monsters we have created and that terrorize us is difficult, and we rarely escape unscathed by our efforts. The first step is to stop playing the victim or blaming others for our monsters’ existence and recognize, like Dr. Frankenstein ultimately does with his creation, that because we created it we are the only ones who can slay it.

Why Blog?

Generally, I do not like to be introduced as a writer. It’s not there is anything to be embarrassed about. It’s just that writing is something I do; a teacher is who I am – first, foremost, and forever.

It is for this simple fact that I’m publishing this blog. If it draws a few more eyes to my novels, that’s great too, but my primary reason for writing anything has always been to expand my classroom.

As a classroom teacher, I typically have around one hundred students enrolled in my courses each year. After thirty-five years in the classroom, I’ve probably taught upwards of four thousand students. However, I have often had students’ parents, friends, and family members share with me that they wish they could sit in on my class. I always invite them, but no one ever takes me up on the offer.

What I hope to do with this blog is to convert some of my classroom lectures into short essays that very briefly summarize various readings and highlight the main themes to be drawn from them. If you do take the time to read them, remember I try to be as provocative as a lecturer as I can. I always warn my students early in the year that I hope to challenge them to question every thing they have been taught to be “right, true, and/or good.” In order to inspire discernment, I often play devil’s advocate and argue for positions I don’t necessarily believe myself.

Someday, I may organize all of these yet-to-be-written pieces into a book of essays. Who knows? For now, I just hope they bring a few nuggets of wisdom and even a tiny bit of joy into the hearts and minds of those who take a few minutes to read them.

Keep an eye on this site. The first essay will be posted soon. For anyone who took my English Literature course, it’ll be a little refresher on my favorite lesson from Beowulf. Don’t roll your eyes. You’re going to love it!