Don Quixote Attacking The Windmill (source of image)
What could a short-sighted, slightly insane and fictitious “knight” from Spain teach us about leadership? Quite a bit apparently, especially if your heart for leadership has grown cold.
One of the greatest fictional works in the late 16th century by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote told 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.
Astride on his trusty horse, the myopic hero embarked on various escapades battling illusory monsters (which were actually windmills). He also imagined herds of sheep to be cavalry soldiers to be reckoned with, and charged at them with all his might!
Accompanied by his short, plump and salt-of-the-earth accomplice Panza, the thin, wiry and ever optimistic Don Quixote set out on various “heroic” endeavours and adventures.
His ultimate goal? To win the heart of a beauteous 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 produced by Stanford professor James March titled Passion and Discipline, I learned with much fascination that there were 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 modern day perspectives of leadership and what it stood for. A description of this video can be found at the Wisdom Portal by Peter Y Chou in case you are interested to view it.
What then are Don Quixote’s three lessons in leadership?
The first is Imagination, a scarce virtue in the hyper pragmatic 21st Century (especially during a recession).
Don Quixote did not just dream about those characters. He firmly believed in them, visualised them to be so, and acted with all his heart according to his beliefs.
In his mind, the reality was 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. They must have the vision and moral courage to pursue something that could be viewed as bold, daring and unconventional.
Good leaders must also hold on clearly to that Big Hairy and Audacious Goal (BHAG). They need to stick to it despite what naysayers may be saying, and brush off those negative voices.
Imagination is the first step to greatness.
The second virtue is Commitment. A strong leader must have the resilience and determination to be committed to his or her own will, committed to beauty (or the purity of one’s own goals), or committed to the cause which is pursued.
Here, it is important to disregard to some extent the law of consequences in the world. By doing so, a leader would have a strong and deeply rooted sense of self that went 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 could also mean that one should have a road map that one stuck to, regardless of circumstances and tribulations, and the energy and passion to keep going at it even when times were 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 always needed in any leadership role.
Despite being ridiculed, attacked and scorned, Don Quixote never abandoned his end goals. He found joy in engagement and relished being involved in the action, struggle and injuries of pursuit.
Like Don Quixote, leaders need to have a constant sense of affirmation and true enjoyment in what he or she does. Only when the pursuit of excellence is aligned with the desires of one’s heart would there be true resonance.
Personally, I was deeply inspired by these simple lessons of what it meant to be a leader. This was well captured by the title “Passion and Discipline”.
Of course, many would think that it would be foolish to embrace Don Quixote’s leadership principles whole-heartedly without considering their consequences. After all, the greying knight wasn’t exactly a successful “entrepreneur” in all senses of the word.
Having said that, I found that there was a lot of truth in March’s words if we stop to think more deeply on what is lacking in today’s leaders.
In life, we need to have a clear vision and goal. Sometimes the more outlandish your goal, the better it would be. If you shoot for the stars, you would at least land on the moon.
We also need to have the wherewithal to stay on our preferred course of action. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, success and failure.
If our passions are ignited by a mission which we fervently believe in, we need to lead with not just our heads but our hearts and souls. When the time comes to venture on the journey, let us enjoy it every bit as much as the destination, cherishing every scratch and every wound which comes with leading a wholehearted life.