The Academy Award winning motion picture “Lawrence of Arabia”, provides surprising and instructive studies in leadership. The main character, T. E. Lawrence, portrayed brilliantly by Peter O’Toole, is a junior officer in the British Army during the First World War. He finds himself unable to conform to a model of leadership that demands unquestioning obedience to superiors of dubious competence, and threatens harsh punishment for questioning authority or any act of “insubordination”. After being assigned to explore the Sahara desert and seek out alliances with the Bedouins, he encounters Auda abu Tayi, a tribal chief portrayed with equal brilliance by Anthony Quinn. Lawrence is perplexed by the apparent paradox of Auda’s ability to unify usually rebellious and independent individuals, despite their “uncivilized” state and lack of any traditional military regulations or hierarchical command structure. In a particularly memorable scene, the two are negotiating in Auda’s luxurious tent. Lawrence presses Auda, challenging his authority and ability to maintain control of his people. Auda rises in anger, lists the many wounds he has suffered for his people, points dramatically to the throngs of tribesmen waiting outside, and declares, “I AM A RIVER TO MY PEOPLE”. The entire tribe, on cue, rises and cheers in agreement. Lawrence gets the message. He understands, for the first time, that Auda’s authority stems not from inherited right or fear of reprisal, but from the fact that his leadership is earned by understanding and providing for the needs of those he leads. He will maintain his influence as long as he provides.
History teaches that every prominent and highly successful leader achieves and maintains authority by understanding and providing for the needs of whatever political or social structure they lead. Leadership and service are intertwined. Similarly, every great overthrow or rebellion can be traced to a failure to continue to provide for those needs.
Leadership in a medical or academic context would seem a long way from the Arabian Desert or rebellions, but some intriguing presentations I attended recently at the AAMC annual meeting on the topic would suggest there are similarities worth noting. Dr. Eugene Washington, a highly respected leader in medical education and Dean of UCLA School of Medicine, lists the following elements as essential to leadership at any level, whether it’s direction of a course, department or entire university:
- Leaders create a shared vision of what the organization, or group, is striving to achieve.
- Leaders affirm the core values of the organization
- Leaders motivate individual members, by finding roles that are of value and interest to both the member and the organization
- Leaders achieve a “workable unity” within the organization, which is a commonly held understanding of every member’s role in achieving organizational goals
- Leaders manage, which means solving problems and ensuring both fairness and openness in the execution of those solutions. This also means assuring accountability for all members.
- Leaders continually communicate and seek input from their members
- Leaders serve as a symbol and lead by example.
This might seem rather lofty and a long way from the role of a Course Director in the Undergraduate curriculum, but I believe these elements are operative in any leadership role, and that any effective change requires solid leadership. We’ll explore this further in upcoming blogs. In the meantime, I’d suggest dropping by Classic Video to pick up a copy of Lawrence of Arabia.