The Iron of Life and the Iron of Death: Claiming Leadership

With the almost infinite amount of material out there in the world talking about leadership it would seem that some of it, even a very small percentage, would actually be useful. Alas, this is not really the case.

If we boil down to the fundamental error undermining almost everyone that talks about leadership we always end up at the same place; a complete misunderstanding about power. And along with the deepest of confusions about power — what it is and what it is not — we find an even deeper confusion about authority.

(I have spoken about power and authority before here, and with this bit of writing I want to directly take on the topic of leadership in a similarly blood and guts kind of way.)

I start with the body of the leader. The body is my axiom. Does the body carry power? Does the mind display sustained focus? Does the person expand or collapse under pressure?

First off, check something out. Read 100 books or articles about leadership. See how many talk about the body of the leader. See if even one gives instruction on how to maintain mental and physical integrity under pressure or how to expand after suffering a serious punch to the mouth. Now read those same 100 books and articles and find out how many talk about ideas, systems, techniques — all heady stuff no doubt.

Beyond the obvious absurdity of advocating any leadership practice that has nothing important to say about the physical presence of the leader and her ability to maintain structural integrity when heavy — often deeply personal — shit is flying her way, leadership is about seeing what others can’t see and embodying something worth following.

This quote from Krishnamurti can help us here:

“A radical change can take place only outside the field of thought, not within it, and the mind can leave the field only when it sees the confines, the boundaries of the field, and realizes that any change within the field is no change at all. This is real meditation. — J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

What he is saying is simple, yet exceedingly elusive. The work of leadership is to abandon ordinary forms and ruthlessly examine every assumption, no matter how familiar and prized. Changing what exists is not leadership. Cultivating the ability to jump from one field of possibility to another — accompanied by your entire organization and teams — is really the mark of quality leadership. Such a skill and practice has nothing to do with ideas and ordinary forms of focus and thought.

And I mean work in the old-fashioned sense of work, not the kind of sitting around a comfortable office or retreat center talking and brainstorming kind of way. What matters is whether or not I commit to the development of a discipline and practice that literally is able to see the confines and boundaries of the field of possibilities I currently choose to live within. Fail on this front, and the entire project of leadership will inevitably become compromised as it is sure to be undermined as pressure and ambiguity mount.

And when the best of leaders see the boundaries and go beyond them, they are no longer thinking, inspiring, theorizing, arguing, motivating or persuading. Their vision and sense of possibility has become clear as the sun coming up in the morning. This skill is called self-possession.

Self-possession is the standard for excellence in leadership because, despite what common sense would have us believe, nobody follows a leader out of one world of possibility into another. What really happens is that the leader merely opens the door. Her clarity of mind, body and purpose orient everyone else into something greater than they would have seen and imagined otherwise.

The finest of leaders in history, both mythical and literal, have given life to such an absolute code of excellence. This code is special and worthy of respect. It supports powerful commitments, embodied language, loyalty, and a quality of discipline demanding strength and focus physically, mentally and emotionally.

The thing about such excellence is that it is lived; it is not an idea or an argument. It is won by only a few and talked about by many.

One of the best ways to see this excellence is in the exchange between Josey Wales and Ten Bears in the film, “The Outlaw Josie Wales.” In this film Clint Eastwood plays a hardened warrior on the run. He can be a stone-cold killer and he can be a protector of those in need; he knows this choice. Towards the end of the film, Josey Wales has decided that he is finished running, and that he is going to settle down with a small community way out in the wilds and raise cattle. But, the Comanche also make a home in this area, and they are not willing to let his community live.

Josey Wales and Ten Bears — From The Outlaw Josey Wales

To protect his new friends, home and way of life, Josey rides out alone to face the chief of the Comanche, Ten Bears, whose warriors are readying themselves to destroy Josey’s community. What ensues in this meeting is one of the purest portraits of a code for leadership excellence ever to be put into a film or book. I include the exchange in its entirety:

Josey: You be Ten Bears?

Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

Josey: I’m Josey Wales.

Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.

Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.

Ten Bears: Then you will die.

Josey: I came here to die with you. Or live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.

Ten Bears: And your word of death?

Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles. I’m here for either one.

Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.

Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death. It shall be life. (Ten Bears then removes his knife and cuts his hand. Josey then follows suite, and they grasp each others hand.)

Ten Bears: So shall it be.

Josey: I reckon so.

Everything we need to know about leadership is in these lines. Here we find an irrefutable willingness to stand for something in the world without any hesitation. We find a clarity of language that extends trust on the highest and riskiest of levels. This language contains a series of commitments that are embodied and grounded in the most basic facts about each man’s life and purpose.

They risk seeing each other, eye-to-eye, and risk enjoining their destiny together. They grant each other the privilege of life. Out of this ground an entirely new world of possibility is disclosed that transcends the insane politics and diminished leadership of their times.

Foreign places yield more to one who is himself worth meeting. -Beowulf

Every day, leaders are given the opportunity to stand for something that could elevate them and their organizations to new heights. Every meaningful decision in the cosmos of the organization carries with it the possibly of supporting life or death. Leaders can carry “iron” in their words, and forge discipline, commitments and trust from such a place of certainty and courage. They can disclose new worlds.

However, no new thinking model, no new gadget or process, no cutting edge training series, book, or top-shelf consultant can give it to me. As a leader, I have to earn the right to face a man like Ten Bears or Josey Wales.

I have to also earn my new thinking as well. If I lack the salt and physical capability to stand for myself, if I fail to understand what such a stand might entail or mean, my leadership and ideas are meaningless.


Andrew Markell is the Co-Founder of Exile, a company that creates, advises and helps capitalize transformative companies and market ecosystems dedicated to empowering people + planet.