Leadership in a Land of Tears: What “The Little Prince” Teaches Us about Responsibility

August 24, 2017

This post is sponsored by St. Martin’s Academy.

I​ ​did​ ​not​ ​know​ ​how​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​him,​ ​how​ ​to​ ​catch​ ​up​ ​with​ ​him…​ ​the​ ​land​ ​of​ ​tears​ ​is​ ​so​ ​mysterious. -Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery

Most​ ​major​ ​bookstores​ ​will​ ​have​ ​a​ ​section​ ​devoted​ ​to​ ​leadership.​ ​​ ​Perhaps​ ​you​ ​have​ ​seen them?​ ​​ ​Dominating​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​are​ ​books​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​well-intentioned​ ​how-to​ ​advice​ ​that​ ​is difficult​ ​to​ ​distinguish​ ​from​ ​the​ ​platitudes​ ​and​ ​bromides​ ​that​ ​fill​ ​its​ ​neighbors.​ ​​ ​Probably​ ​never will​ ​you​ ​find​ ​the​ ​French​ ​author​ ​Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery’s​ ​pamphlet​ ​length​ ​book​ ​titled​ ​​The Little​​ Prince​​​ on​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​devoted​ ​to​ ​leadership,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​offers​ ​an​ ​insight​ ​we​ ​desperately​ ​need​ ​in order​ ​to​ ​mitigate​ ​the​ ​hollowness​ ​in​ ​our​ ​understanding​ ​and​ ​practice​ ​of​ ​leadership.

The​ ​quote​ ​from​ ​​The​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​​above​ ​describes​ ​a​ ​fictional​ ​meeting​ ​between​ ​a​ ​space travelling​ ​little​ ​boy—apparently​ ​a​ ​prince—and​ ​the​ ​author.​ ​​ ​The​ ​Little​ ​Prince,​ ​visiting​ ​earth​ ​from an​ ​asteroid,​ ​has​ ​explained​ ​that​ ​he​ ​is​ ​afraid​ ​for​ ​his​ ​flower—a​ ​rose—that​ ​grows​ ​on​ ​Asteroid​ ​B-612. One​ ​is​ ​never​ ​certain​ ​that​ ​an​ ​untended​ ​flower​ ​will​ ​not​ ​be​ ​eaten​ ​by​ ​a​ ​hungry​ ​celestial​ ​sheep,​ ​and realizing​ ​just​ ​that​ ​possibility​ ​has​ ​brought​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​to​ ​tears.​ ​​ ​Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery struggles​ ​to​ ​console​ ​his​ ​small​ ​companion​ ​in​ ​this​ ​difficulty.​ ​​ ​But​ ​as​ ​he​ ​puts​ ​it,​ ​he​ ​is​ ​unable​ ​“to catch​ ​up​ ​with​ ​him.”

What Makes a Leader?

Antoine​ ​is​ ​an​ ​older​ ​man,​ ​a​ ​pilot​ ​on​ ​a​ ​mission​ ​gone​ ​wrong,​ ​who​ ​finds​ ​himself​ ​stranded​ ​in the​ ​desert​ ​with​ ​a​ ​broken​ ​airplane​ ​and​ ​a​ ​young​ ​prince​ ​who​ ​has​ ​just​ ​dropped​ ​in​ ​from​ ​outer​ ​space. Antoine​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​fix​ ​his​ ​engine​ ​but​ ​is​ ​likely​ ​to​ ​die​ ​of​ ​dehydration​ ​before​ ​he​ ​can.​ ​​ ​In​ ​the meantime,​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​is​ ​crying​ ​on​ ​account​ ​of​ ​the​ ​sheep​ ​and​ ​flower​ ​situation.​ ​​ ​Perhaps inexplicably,​ ​Antoine​ ​assumes​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​his​ ​young​ ​visitor’s​ ​tears​ ​although​ ​he​ ​is​ ​not certain​ ​what​ ​to​ ​do​ ​about​ ​them.

You​ ​see,​ ​Antoine​ ​is​ ​a​ ​leader.​ ​​ ​He​ ​is​ ​confronted​ ​with​ ​two​ ​problems:​ ​a​ ​malfunctioning engine;​ ​and​ ​a​ ​sheep/flower/tears​ ​situation.​ ​​ ​Generally,​ ​engines​ ​can​ ​be​ ​fixed;​ ​a​ ​​mal​ functioning thing​ ​can​ ​be​ ​made​ ​to​ ​function​ ​properly;​ ​one​ ​exerts​ ​one’s​ ​will​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​malfunctioning​ ​object and,​ ​with​ ​a​ ​little​ ​luck​ ​and​ ​know-how,​ ​the​ ​thing​ ​functions.​ ​​ ​Whereas,​ ​for​ ​Antoine​ ​to​ ​attempt​ ​to impose​ ​his​ ​will​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​as​ ​if​ ​he​ ​were​ ​an​ ​engine​ ​to​ ​be​ ​fixed​ ​would​ ​be​ ​worse​ ​than useless.​ ​​ ​No.​ ​​ ​What​ ​to​ ​do​ ​about​ ​the​ ​possibility​ ​of​ ​hungry​ ​celestial​ ​sheep​ ​is​ ​the​ ​​real​​ ​challenge. Antoine​ ​chooses​ ​the​ ​more​ ​difficult​ ​mission—to​ ​attempt​ ​consoling​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince,​ ​and​ ​it​ ​is more​ ​difficult​ ​because​ ​the​ ​Prince​ ​is​ ​not​ ​malfunctioning;​ ​he​ ​is​ ​suffering.

Suffering and Responsibility

Antoine​ ​is​ ​a​ ​leader​ ​because,​ ​while​ ​suffering​ ​and​ ​in​ ​danger​ ​himself,​ ​he​ ​assumes​ ​the​ ​burden of​ ​the​ ​Prince’s​ ​suffering.​ ​​ ​He​ ​accepts​ ​the​ ​responsibility​ ​of​ ​pursuing​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​into​ ​the mysterious​ ​“land​ ​of​ ​tears”​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​recover​ ​him.​ ​​ ​Sometimes​ ​a​ ​leader​ ​will​ ​blaze​ ​a​ ​trail​ ​for​ ​his followers;​ ​sometimes​ ​he​ ​will​ ​discipline​ ​them;​ ​but​ ​always​ ​he​ ​is​ ​responsible​ ​for​ ​them—always​ ​he is​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​catch​ ​up​ ​to​ ​them.​ ​​ ​A​ ​leader​ ​is​ ​never​ ​one​ ​who​ ​simply​ ​exercises​ ​his​ ​will​ ​over​ ​his subordinates.​ ​​ ​Instead,​ ​he​ ​makes​ ​himself​ ​responsible​ ​for​ ​their​ ​wills;​ ​he​ ​suffers​ ​the​ ​consequences of​ ​their​ ​actions;​ ​he​ ​joins​ ​them​ ​in​ ​their​ ​suffering​ ​because​ ​only​ ​when​ ​leader​ ​and​ ​follower​ ​are together​ ​in​ ​the​ ​“land​ ​of​ ​tears”​ ​can​ ​one​ ​lead​ ​the​ ​other​ ​out.​ ​​ ​In​ ​fact,​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​provides​ ​the first​ ​and​ ​final​ ​word​ ​on​ ​the​ ​matter:​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Incarnation,​ ​Christ​ ​the​ ​leader​ ​assumes​ ​humanity​ ​in​ ​order to​ ​lead​ ​His​ ​people​ ​to​ ​salvation.​ ​​ ​The​ ​word​ ​educate​ ​preserves​ ​this​ ​fundamental​ ​truth​ ​about leadership:​ ​to​ ​educate​ ​(from​ ​the​ ​Latin​ ​prefix​ ​‘​e​’​ ​meaning​ ​“out”​ ​and​​ ​​ ‘​ducere​’​ ​“to​ ​lead”)​ ​is​ ​to​ ​lead someone​ ​out.

There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​leadership​ ​without​ ​an​ ​acknowledgement​ ​of​ ​this​ ​responsibility​ ​to​ ​pursue​ ​the other​ ​in​ ​all​ ​his​ ​subjectivity​ ​and​ ​suffering​ ​regardless​ ​of​ ​the​ ​circumstances​ ​and​ ​consequences. Christianity’s​ ​central​ ​theme​ ​is​ ​the​ ​conflation​ ​of​ ​these​ ​apparent​ ​opposites:​ ​to​ ​pursue​ ​and​ ​to lead—as​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Exodus​ ​where​ ​God​ ​leads​ ​His​ ​people​ ​out​ ​of​ ​Egypt;​ ​or​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​when​ ​He pursues​ ​and​ ​catches​ ​us​ ​in​ ​our​ ​human​ ​suffering.​ ​​ ​The​ ​archetypal​ ​model​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leader​ ​is​ ​One​ ​who has​ ​pursued​ ​us​ ​into​ ​our​ ​cosmological​ ​vale​ ​of​ ​tears;​ ​who​ ​pierced​ ​history​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​be​ ​pierced​ ​by history;​ ​who​ ​made​ ​each​ ​of​ ​us​ ​“unique​ ​in​ ​all​ ​the​ ​world”​ ​by​ ​catching​ ​and​ ​joining​ ​us​ ​in​ ​our suffering,​ ​and​ ​who​ ​assumed​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​all​ ​that​ ​suffering​ ​in​ ​the​ ​crucifixion.

Leadership is Not Safe

To​ ​choose​ ​responsibility​ ​is​ ​to​ ​choose​ ​leadership,​ ​and​ ​leadership​ ​is​ ​rarely​ ​a​ ​safe​ ​or​ ​easy choice.​ ​​ ​How​ ​often​ ​do​ ​good​ ​works​ ​falter​ ​for​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​strong​ ​and​ ​willing​ ​leaders?—for​ ​lack​ ​of those​ ​willing​ ​to​ ​assume​ ​responsibility​ ​and​ ​all​ ​the​ ​risk​ ​it​ ​implies?​ ​​ ​How​ ​often​ ​do​ ​families​ ​falter​ ​for lack​ ​of​ ​fathers​ ​who​ ​embrace​ ​their​ ​role​ ​as​ ​leaders​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sacrifices​ ​of​ ​leadership?​ ​​ ​Responsibility makes​ ​one​ ​vulnerable​ ​in​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​Antoine​ ​becomes​ ​vulnerable​ ​to​ ​exposure​ ​and​ ​death​ ​in​ ​the desert​ ​for​ ​his​ ​little​ ​friend;​ ​or​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​Christ​ ​becomes​ ​vulnerable​ ​to​ ​human​ ​malady​ ​and malice​ ​through​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Eucharist.​ ​​ ​It​ ​is​ ​easiest​ ​and​ ​safest​ ​to​ ​remain​ ​incognito​ ​in one’s​ ​family,​ ​community,​ ​country,​ ​and​ ​church—easiest​ ​and​ ​safest​ ​to​ ​let​ ​one’s​ ​Little​ ​Prince sojourn​ ​alone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​land​ ​of​ ​tears.​ ​​ ​But​ ​as​ ​Saint-Exupery​ ​makes​ ​clear​ ​in​ ​his​ ​beautiful​ ​and profound​ ​little​ ​book,​ ​the​ ​burden​ ​of​ ​assuming​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​others,​ ​entailing​ ​suffering​ ​as​ ​it does,​ ​is​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​purest​ ​acts​ ​of​ ​love.​ ​​ ​It​ ​is​ ​this​ ​act​ ​of​ ​love​ ​that​ ​incites​ ​the​ ​pursuit​ ​of​ ​the beloved—this​ ​act​ ​of​ ​love​ ​that​ ​is​ ​leadership.

Suffering​ ​is​ ​a​ ​given​ ​in​ ​life—so​ ​why​ ​not​ ​lead​ ​a​ ​little?

Patrick Whalen is the Headmaster of St. Martin’s Academy, a farm-based boarding high school for boys opening in fall 2018. Patrick served on Active Duty in the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2016 and has published poetry, translations, and articles in a variety of journals and books.  He and his wife Kristi have four children and live in Fort Scott, Kansas.  
Patrick Whalen


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