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Friday, November 11, 2011

Leadership is ‘Knowing the Self’

William James said: “I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘this is the real me’.” And extending this observation of James further, Warren Bennis said that “people begin to become leaders at that moment, when they decide for themselves how to be.” And for this to happen, one should know oneself.

Self-knowing is nothing but accepting one’s self as it is. It is about being authentic and to reflect one’s values in one’s decisions and actions. This is well captured by William Shakespeare in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

We often hear from senior leaders that “to be inspiring” is the essential element of a leader. The literal meaning of ‘inspire’ is “to breathe life into.” That is what every leader should aspire to be. To be inspiring, one must first know what one is. Self-knowledge enables him to accept his limitations and that makes him more comfortable with whatever he does. He simply never tries to be someone he’s not. Behavior generated by this philosophy is sure to generate trust in the people led by him. For a self-knowing leader, his beliefs, principles and values become explicit. This affords authenticity to whatever he speaks to his team mates for they strongly believe that what he says is what he does. This authenticity of what he speaks and its congruity with what he does, inspires others to work for similar links. Then the whole organization becomes one: they only do what they speak. Such authenticity across the system leads to trusted leadership which importantly means “not faking out”.

As Alan Arkan said, “When you start discovering who and what you are, it’s bigger than anything you ever imaged yourself to be. And, by definition, it’s generous. It’s generous exploration. The more of you, you find, the more of you there is to give to those who love.” When one gives so much love one gets back only love, which is better for the organization, for “love comforteth like sunshine after rain,” and that is sure to enhance the over-all productivity of the organization. That’s what you indeed see happening in the following story.[1]


Its farmers were passing through difficult times. There were no rains. Nor could rain-bearing clouds be seen. Corn crop was drying fast. A blanket of dust covered their crops. Everyone wondered what they would do.

Amidst the nature-inflicted wrath, the owners of the land – banks – came and evicted them from their lands.

Joad’s family – Grandpa Joad, Grandma Joad, Pa Joad, Noah Joad, Tom Joad – the central character of the story, Ma Joad –moral fulcrum of the story, two children – 12-year old Ruthie, and 10-year old Winfield, Rose of Sharon and her husband – was one among those evicted families.

Most of the displaced farmers’ families were going towards West – California – in search of livelihood. Joad’s family, too, took to the highway 66 – the main migrant road stretching from Mississippi to Bakersfield, California.

Joad’s family faced incredible hardship and pain in the journey. First, Grandpa refused to move to California, and this resentment was made explicit all through the journey. Second, their ancient, and over-loaded vehicle gave frequent troubles on the road. Third, there was little money left with them. Four, right from gas station people to diners on the highway – everyone despised their already “junked lives” – humiliated them.

At one of their roadside stops for the night, the Joads met Willson’s family going from Kansas to California. Grandpa suddenly took ill. Willson’s family lent a tent for Grandpa to rest. Grandpa started twitching and slumped. He died. That was the first shock to Joad’s family.

They just had $150 with them. If the death was informed to the officials, they would charge $40 to bury him. If that was done, Pa wondered if they could go to California with the left over money.

Pa Joad declared, “He had the right to bury Grandpa as his son.” They finally buried him themselves leaving a note on the grave to the effect who he is, the cause of his death and why he was buried there. As requested by Ma Joad, Tom also scribbled something from the scripture on the paper, so that it would also be religious.

Grandpa’s sudden demise – which they felt was more due to his separation from his land of birth – rattled them.

The Joads and the Willsons then moved slowly westward, as a unit. While traveling, Rose reveals her mind to her mother: On reaching California, she plans to live in a town where her husband can get a job. At this Ma Joad, asked her in a worried tone: “Are you not going to stay with us? It is no good for the family to breakup.”

On the highway, Willson’s car suddenly started rattling. They pulled the vehicle to a side and stopped to fix it. But it couldn’t be fixed. Willsons then requested Joad’s family to pack-up and move forward. But Pa Joad refuses to leave them behind for all the help they rendered at Grandpa’s death. Then Tom and Jim Casy – the former preacher who accompanied Joad’s family to California – proposed to stay back to get the car fixed and catch up with them, while all the rest can go forward in their vehicle. This sounded all right and Pa Joad accepted the proposal.

At this, Ma Joad brought out a Jack handle and balancing it in her hand declared: “I am not going”.

“We have decided and you have to move along,” said Pa.

Pat came the reply: “You could take me without Tom by whipping only, but if you do that, I am sure to retort and will shame you.”

Pa looked helpless.

The whole group watched her revolt in wonder. Gathering his wits, Tom asked: “Ma what’s eating you?”

Ma, with a fierceness replied: “You are asking me this without thinking much. What are we left with? Nothing but us. And you want to break the family?”

Tom cried: “Oh! Ma, we should join you soon.”

Waving the Jack handle Ma said: “Suppose you miss us on the road, where would you enquire for us? We already had enough on the road. Grandma is terribly sick. We got a long bitter road ahead. I can take no more chances.”
Finally, they made up their mind to move all together. In all this, Ma, like the Rock of Gibraltar, stood for the family’s unity. That is her concern for the family!

Eventually, they entered California. As the sun was setting in the west, they drove to the river that was running parallel to the road for wash and rest. There was a little encampment near the river. Two young people joined them at the river. They told them that Californians hate “Okis” and there is very little scope for employment. Listening to them, Noah Joad announced his desire to stay back at the river. This was the second loss to the family.

Grandma became sick. She was awfully sick. Ma Joad, squatting by her side, fanned Grandma with a cardboard. Listening to a Khaki fellow, Ma called for Tom Joad and said: “There is a police calling us “Okis” and they don’t want us here.”

Listening to what Ma said, Tom, in consultation with others decided to move on. And they took to the road. By midnight, they reached an illuminating sign under floodlights: “Keep right and stop”. Tom pulled the car aside and looked out. After a while, Inspectors came to them and wanted to check everything.

Listening to them, Ma Joad climbed down heavily from the truck. Her face was swollen and her eyes were hard. “Look Mister! we got a sick old lady. We got to get her to a doctor. We can’t wait”.

Even then, the Inspectors insisted on inspecting if there was any Agricultural produce.

Ma Joad cried hysterically: “I swear we haven’t got anything!”

Seeing her swollen face and hard eyes and the swearing, the Inspector allowed them to proceed. Moved by her anxiety, he even suggested that they could locate a doctor in Barstow, which was not far off.

Ma Joad hurried them up to drive fast and cross over the desert.

By next morning they reached the golden grain-fields of California. Tom cried: “Ma come and see where we have come.”

She got off the car. Her face was stiff and putty-like, eyes sunk deep and rims red with weariness. She said in a croaking voice: “You say we have crossed.”

Staring at her, Tom asked: “Are you sick Ma?”

“No, just tired”.

“Is Grandma bad?” queried Tom.

Ma raised her eyes and said: “Grandma is dead”.

“When?” asked Pa.

“It was before the Inspectors stopped us last night.”

“So that’s why you didn’t want them to look?”

“I was afraid we wouldn’t get crossed,” stammered Ma.

Tom said: “Jesus Christ! you laying there with her all night long!”

“The family had to get crossed,” Ma said miserably.

Casy said in wonder: “All through the night she was lying by the side of the dead body all alone, and all for the safe cross-over of the family into California. What a brave woman! And, what a great concern for the family?”

They finally reached the Coroner’s office in Bakersfield and got Grandma’s body examined for diagnosing the cause of death. They could not however give her a decent burrial, all for want of money.

They then went to a nearby camp to stay and look for work. But they ended up in a quarrel in which Casy – the former preacher for whom “everything living is holy”– was arrested. In the meanwhile, Connie, the husband of Rose, deserts her. They leave the camp in dismay, heading north towards a government camp. They settle there. Next day a neighbor takes Tom to the fields for work.

However, in their stay of 30 days in the camp, Tom has had only 5 days of work, and the rest of the men have had none. Ma Joad was worried about the poor earnings, since, Rose of Sharon was close to delivering her baby. But she never let others know that she was desperate. Instead, she reprimands the family members for becoming discouraged. She reminds them that in such circumstances they don’t have the right to become discouraged. She thus continues to play the role of the natural caretaker and moral center of the family.

At this forceful control of the family by Ma Joad, Pa once remarks that times have changed where men have to listen to women. It is time to take out a stick. Hearing this remark, Ma Joad tells that she is doing her job as wife, while Pa is certainly not doing his job as a husband.   

At last, as suggested by Tom, the family moves towards Marysville for work. On the way, they meet a gentleman who directs them to Hooper Ranch offering work – both for men and women including children. They finally reach the ranch and settle down for work. But unfortunately, Tom gets entangled in a quarrel with the police in which he kills one of them. So, he has to hide. He tells Ma that he has to leave them, for hiding himself from the cops and for the family to be safe. But Ma insists that they leave as a family. She prefers unity of the family – whatever is left out – to the safety of the family. They thus leave the Ranch northwards for cotton picking.

This time round, the Joads stay in a box car that stood beside a stream. They were now picking up cotton. Tom hides himself in the woods. One night, Ma Joad goes out into the woods to see Tom, who is special to her and on whom the family depended for its welfare. She reaches him in the darkness and holds his hands with all the affection. Tom says that he has been thinking of what Casy said: “There is no individual soul, instead a collective soul of which each person only has a part.” Driven by this newfound philosophy he tells Ma of his desire: “I will be aroun’ in the dark... wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat.... I will be there.”

Realizing that family unity is insignificant in the absence of unity in the society, Ma Joad bids farewell to Tom expecting him to strive for that unity. She thus does not cry at his departure, though her eyes were wet.

Ma returns to the car-shed and informs Pa Joad and uncle John about her sending Tom far off. Nodding his head Pa says: “We got nothing now. No work, no crops, what we goanna do then? How are we to get stuff to eat? I hate to think.”

“Seems like our life is over and done.”

“No, it is not”, says Ma. She says man lives in jerks, whereas for women, it’s all one flow, like the stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. A woman looks at it like that. We are not going to die out. People are going on – changing a little, maybe, but going right on – She advises him to just try to live the day, just the day and not to worry himself.

Next morning they go out to the fields for cotton picking. While in the cotton fields, suddenly rain started – causing Rose to shiver. They hurriedly take her back to the box car and start a fire to get her warm.

The rain continues for three days. Everyone fears that the stream may breach and flood the area. In the meanwhile, Sharon delivers a still-born baby. As the flood water was rising, they build a platform on the top of the car and take refuge on it till the rain stops.

As the rain becomes intermittent, Ma Joad decides to move out to a higher ground with Rose of Sharon, leaving the little fellows behind to take care of their belongings.
They start pushing themselves forward through the deep waters on the highway. They could manage to locate a barn on a rolling hill. They get into it.

Ma Joad, anxiously looks around the barn to find a place where Rose can change from her wet clothes and noticed two figures lying in gloom in a corner of the barn. It was a man who lay on his back and a boy sitting beside him.

As Ma looked at the boy, he came towards her. With a choked voice he asked her: “Do you own this?”

“No,” Ma said. “We just came here to get our sick girl out of rain.”

In a croaking monotone the boy said that his father was sick and starving.

Ma went near him and looked down at the man. He was around 50.

Accompanying her, the boy said: “Last night I have stolen some bread and made him to chew it down. But he could not. He needs soup or milk. Can you spare me some money to get milk?”

Ma assured him that something will be done.

Suddenly the boy cried: “He is dying, I tell you! He is starving to death, I tell you.”

Ma looked at Pa and uncle John who were helplessly gazing at the sick man. Then she looked at Rosasharon. Ma’s eyes passed Rosasharon’s eyes. And the two women looked deep into each other.

Rose’s breath came short and gasping. She said, “Yes”.

Ma smiled, “I knowed you would. I knowed!”

Ma leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.

Ma then brings out everybody into the tool shed.

Then Rosasharon moves slowly to the corner and gives the dying man her breast milk – a classic example of altruism – she cared for the anonymous man with the same love as she would for her child, with a mysterious smile on her face.

That was the story of the dispossessed Joad’s family, which, in a way, epitomizes the difference between life and living.

The characters of the story – particularly that of Ma Joad – teaches us that to be successful in leading even a small unit, such as a family, one should have three essential traits: one, ‘knowing one’s self’; two, ‘expressiveness’; and three, ‘presence’, and all in right proportion. Let us take a re-look at the story to decipher how critical these three elements are in making leadership effective.

We have seen in the story that Ma Joad has tremendous faith in the unity of the family. She steadfastly worked for it. In order to keep the family intact, she didn’t hesitate even to revolt against all the family members with the handle of Jack in her hand. She even challenged her husband to dare whip to make her move without Tom. This makes everyone see her point of view and they decide to move as one unit. All this, she could accomplish simply because she knew what she cares for – how important the family is to her. And this she made it known to all of them through her well-intended deeds all through the journey. This incident makes another great revelation: “If you think of what you want and examine the possibilities, you can usually figure out a way to accomplish it,” as Warren Bennis said.

One of the best examples is her intimidating the Inspectors, who have come to inspect the vehicle under the floodlights, by shouting that they didn’t have anything and there was a sick lady warranting immediate attention of a doctor, and insisting on being allowed to proceed. Secondly, lying with the dead body all through the night just to ensure that her family soon enters California and start earning wages. What a ‘presence!’

Her knowledge of ‘self’ becomes evident when she, hearing Pa sarcastically saying, “Times have changed and now men have to listen to women”, said: “You are not doing your job as a husband – thinking or working – whereas I am doing what, as a wife, I am supposed to do for the family.” What better testimony does one need to appreciate that Ma Joad “knows herself” pretty well and it is this “knowing” that has enabled her to make everyone listen to her? This very act of Ma Joad nearly confirms what Warren Bennis said in his book – On Becoming a Leader.[2] “Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be.”

There is yet another incident, where she exhibits her determination to keep the family intact. When Tom killed a cop and was hiding himself from being caught, he advised his family to move forward leaving him to fend for himself – till at least everything is blown over. Here, too, Ma refuses to accept Tom’s proposition. Here, again, she exhibits a tremendous amount of confidence in herself in preferring the family’s unity at the risk of its safety. She is sure that she could always win over the hearts of others, for she knows for certain, that what she is doing is for the good of the family.

Subsequently, the same Ma Joad, allows Tom Joad to break away from the family and be on his own and strive for the welfare of the society as a whole, all because she realized that family unity has no meaning, when there is no unity in the society. This “clarity” in her, truly echoes in her announcement: “Use to be fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. Worse off we get, the more we got to do”. Her love for society has become so expansive that she could easily and at once break out of her stance of ‘family-centered’ behavior. This act of letting off Tom for whom she had a special affection and, on whom the family was heavily dependent for survival, is a great act of generosity in itself. Such generosity can only flow when one is certain of his/her longings, beliefs, and values. This incident testifies that “self-knowledge, self-invention are lifetime processes.”

Her compassion for the fellow beings had become so intense that she couldn’t but ask her daughter, that, too, with a mere glance, to breast-feed the unknown but dying man. She and her daughter have literally “breathed life” into that starving man. This was possible only because, she knew what she valued most. This large-heartedness of hers, although taken to the extreme, is the very quintessence of leadership.

Here, it is also worth remembering that it is the same Sharon who once felt claustrophobia, bothered by the lack of privacy to be with her husband; it is the same Sharon who dreamt of leading a life of luxury in California all by herself; it is the same self-centered lady, who, indeed, wanted to desert the family in search of pleasure with her husband; and she could later understand what Ma meant when she glanced deeply at her and smilingly respond to it by breast-feeding the starving man.

That is the influence Ma could exercise on Rosasharon. That is the influence she could exercise on Pa and uncle John when she huddled them to the tool room of the barn. It is her, “expressiveness’ that is coupled with ‘authenticity’ emanating from her ‘self-knowledge’, that simply made others follow by her commands. That is leadership in action!

There is another incident in the story which highlights why “knowledge of self” is essential to successfully play the role of a leader. We all know how normal it is in the families for Pa to be the leader. But in this story, we have seen Pa Joad over a period of time being replaced by Ma. Now, what is important here is, why and how she replaced him? The answer is not far to seek. Pa Joad laments at one stage: “We got nothing, now. ‘Comin’ a long time – no work, no crops, what we gonna do then? How we gonna git stuff to eat? … Git so I have to think. Go digging back to a ol’time to keep from thinkin’. Seems like our life’s over an’ done.”

Contrast this with Ma’s reaction to these very comments. Smilingly, she says: “No, it ain’t. It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks… gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk…” She goes on to say: “Even gettin’ hungry – even bein sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live the day, jus’ the day.”

How clear she was in her thoughts! Not only was she authentic in what she was saying but also very “expressive” – could articulate her thoughts so coherently. This simple statement makes her stand as an example for what Martin Luther King Jr once said: “The ultimate measure of a leader is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

This dialogue between Pa Joad and Ma makes it very clear that “knowing self” makes life much easier to live and leadership is just a part of living, for quality of “leadership is defined by the man who plays it” and until that man is at ease with himself, he cannot enact any well. And, to be at ease with oneself, one should know who one is, what one’s longings are and how real one is to oneself. The whole character of Ma Joad confirms what Warren Bennis[3] observed about leadership: “No one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, accept you.” But he also suggested four lessons for self-knowledge and they are:

  • ·           You are your own best teacher.
  • ·           Accept responsibilities. Blame no one.
  • ·            You can learn anything you want to learn.
  • ·               True understanding comes from self-reflecting on your experience.

In the entire journey that the Joads undertook, never have we witnessed Ma Joad abdicating her responsibility towards her family, nor does she complain against anyone. It is only her resilience and willingness to learn anew that we have witnessed. She only pursued what she believed in, despite all the odds. That’s all there is for leadership – be it in families or in organizations – to be successful.

[1] Source: Adapted from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939), Penguin Books Limited, Middlesex.
[2] On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis, 1997, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
[3] On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis, 1997, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.


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