Monthly Archives: April 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Good, the Great and the “HBR”

hbr-logoProminent on the Harvard Business Review’s website, one finds an article by James R. Bailey entitled, “The Difference between Good Leaders and Great Ones.” Now one should not quibble at the uncomfortable plural of the word “one” on display for all to see in the title; I confess that I myself have, on rare occasions, used that false plural, though never in such a conspicuous position, of course. Still, the article is worth perusing, if for no other reason than to contrast it with what great leadership actually is. Large stretches of that article sound about right in no small part because the entire article is partially true. If one were to think evenhandedly, one might conclude something along these lines: “a partial truth is better than no truth and certainly better than a lie. It’s better than evil. It’s an improvement on bad. At least it’s something that is practically complete, almost right, virtually true.”

But one would be wrong, for something can’t be “virtually true.” Truth is necessarily complete in and of itself. Partially right is wrong; practically complete is incomplete; virtually true is false. So I begin by suggesting that what the famed scholar James R. Bailey, the Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development at George Washington University’s School of Business, and coauthor of Handbook of Managerial and Organizational Wisdom, has written is, in fact, a mean sort of lie.veritas

That expression “a partial truth is a mean sort of lie” (meaning, of course, an intentional partial truth) is penned in the back of the Bible that once belonged to my grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes. After her death, I happened upon that old book, and I have never forgotten her personal notes scrawled within it. Yet if that saying sounds a bit pointed, even piquant, nevertheless that very piquancy is why, I suppose, I have never let it slip from my memory. And one must understand that in the phrase, “a mean sort of lie,” the word “mean” does not convey the sense of “belligerent” but rather “cheap,” “inferior.” In other words, partial truth fails even to measure up to being a clever lie. It’s a second-rate lie, one that is base, vulgar and vile.

Now you might be thinking that I’m being petulant. But I am not. Yet if not, why would I want to vilify the work of one James R. Bailey, work presumably so profound that it bedecks the HBR website? Well, vilify is a strong word, and I’m not out to do that. But I suppose the reason I am calling attention to his work is because his article contains a number of facile suppositions that, unexamined, might tame the docile reader into submission, causing the reader to believe that, just because that professor has an elevated position, he must be right. Dr. Bailey writes:

“It’s tempting to think leadership … follows a continuum, one anchored by bad and great, with good somewhere in between. … I dispute … the stubborn resolve that great and good are points along the same stream. That just isn’t so. Great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. … great is a force. True, great also means “excellent,” but that is not its primary meaning. As for “good,” we usually reference morality, virtue, and ethics — “a good person” or “a good decision.” Good can refer to the quality of something — contrasted against the commonly understood opposite, bad — but in this context good refers to the direction in which behavior is compelled.
        Great leadership is powerful, dominating, often overwhelming. It can sweep people along through sheer animation. Great leadership excites, energizes, and stimulates. It’s a rousing call, shocking complacency and inertia into action. It’s one of the most potent pulls in human history, and as such accounts for much of humanity’s progress, as well as its suffering. While it ignites collective action and stirs passion, its direction depends largely on those that wield its power. Great has no inherent moral compass, and thus its unpredictable potency can just as easily be put toward pugilistic and peaceful purposes.”

hitlerAccording to Professor Bailey’s argument, someone like Adolf Hitler could be classified as a great leader. But, do we really want to say that? Can you imagine yourself standing there at a cocktail party with a glass in your hand and say to group of your friends, “Well, you know, Adolf Hitler really was a great leader.” And then when everyone looks aghast, perhaps you could add, “Well, I got that off the Harvard Business School’s website.”

Then if you’re remarkably fortunate, an equally hoodwinked interlocutor might say, “Well, yes, I saw that article! Indeed, according to—was it someone named Bailey’s?—definition, I think you have a point.” But in truth, it is very unlikely that any of the ones (sic) at that party will be aware of Professor Bailey’s droll redefinition of the almost trite expression “great leadership,” his prominent place on the Harvard Business Review’s website notwithstanding.

For he has forgotten that good and great, though not technically on a continuum, are contiguous ideas in English. “Great” is related, of course, to the German gross, meaning large, derived from the Indo-European root *ghreu- which seems to have meant “grind” (though according to the OED that etymology is far from certain).[1] One thinks of great as referring to size when, for example, one thinks of an appellation such as the Great Lakes or World War I as the “Great War,” or the description of St. Mary from the second chapter of Luke, “… Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea … 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the word has primarily meant “excellent.” Now Bailey is right to note that good and great are not the same idea. Good’s comparative is better; great’s is greater. Yet both adjectives currently imply something decent, something right, something noble, not something simply powerful. In fact, I cannot think of a sentence in which great could be substituted for “shocking complacency and inertia into action,” to use Bailemoral-compassy’s words cited above. No I think Dr. Bailey is simply wrong. Hitler was not great, nor can any leader be who, to use Bailey’s words again, has “no… moral compass.”

But leadership can be a neutral term, and maybe that’s what Dr. Bailey really meant to say. Leadership can be good or bad. A good leader will be driven by decency, will be compelled to action by a sense of the divine imprimatur, whether he or she knows it or not. That gracious mark on the good leader’s life will evidence itself in a profound moral sense, a desire for justice not for self-aggrandizement. When one finds a good leader, it is rare. When one finds a great leader, one who has such characteristics to an even greater degree than the good leader, that is rarer still.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

And while it is obvious that no great leader will be perfect or have an unblemished record of leadership, one can quite often sense a great leader when one hears that person speak or reads what he or she has written. One might disagree with that leader’s political vantage point, but one should, nonetheless, sense that greatness from his or her palpable courage, thoughtful command of words and principled execution of deeds. One might here think of presidents such as Lincoln or Kennedy, or famous figures such as St. Teresa of Calcutta or Harriet Tubman. And there are many others, from Queen Victoria to John Paul II, from Pericles of Athens to Mahatma Ghandi. (Notably not on the list are Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler).

So it would seem that leadership can be either good, great, or bad, and greatness, pace Dr. Bailey, cannot be bad or good. One portion of Plutarch’s description of Cicero, of which I here in closing render but a brief snippet, sums up well the portrait of a truly great leader:

“For [Cicero] especially revealed to the Romans how much pleasure rhetoric adds to the good, and that justice is unassailable if it is rightly spoken, and further that it is incumbent upon one engaging in the business of civic leadership ever to choose the good instead of merely the agreeable, and by his words to remove the bothersome from that which is advantageous.” ( Life of Cicero, 13.1)

[1] Further see the handy online source:



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Poetic Art

When commenting on a phrase in the 683rd line of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous (but perhaps not well known to everyone) Virgilian commentator Servius once wrote “the poetic art is not to say all things.” While I can’t speak for everyone, it seems to me that this is pretty good advice for living in general. The phrase might be stated, “the art of living is not to say all things.”

How, when we can communicate so easily today by telephone, email, texting, Instagram, Snapchat, IChat, or Twitter or the like, can I possibly say that the art of living is not to say everything? I think my thinking is borne out of a very old-fashioned idea that gestures can speak louder than words. I don’t mean by this hand gestures, though hand gestures, as the Italians have proven, are really a marvelous way of enhancing or even replacing words with non-verbal cues. For example, the gesture offered below means “I am hungry.”ho-fame

This one means, you’re the source of my problem—and may you be warded off:


And this one means, I find what he is saying (or what someone is proposing) not to my taste (indigestible):


And here are a few more, courtesy of

handgesturesBut delightful as all of these hand signals are, they are, of course, not what I mean exactly by “gestures.” Rather, what I am getting at is that the art of living well must allow for, even require, some purposeful lack of clarity, some “coded” behavior, certain suggestive non-verbal cues that make the words that you do actually say have greater meaning. And such gesture s could be something as simple as opening a door for someone, refilling a wine glass before someone can ask, offering an appropriate hug. Such a gesture could even be as subtle as a (literal) pat on the back, a bonding wink, a warm and accepting smile.

And that is all I want to say today, because truly the poetic art is not to say everything or (in the case of this blog) even to say too much.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Making Out on Cape Cod with Skunks

Contrary to popular belief, I have no penchant for philological congresses. I much prefer visiting the strikingly beautiful state of Montana, where I am now, spending time with a friend, Barbara, a pianist/philologist, though not a professional musician. She, in turn, has another good friend who is a member of the Crow tribe (Apsáalooke to outsiders; Biilooke to their fellow Crows). That Crow friend of my friend, by the name of Aaron, as well as being a cultural anthropologist, is a philologist, too. Here in Montana I had the pleasure of hearing him as he offered an impressive lecture on the Crow language and an understanding of the nation’s origins and religion.flag_of_the_crow_nation

The way I meet these philologists, Crow or otherwise, is quite accidental and probably stems from or is at least mildly associated with my reading of Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which is one of my favorite light reads—I’m due to read it again any day. If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you. I once discussed that very book with its author over dinner and drinks. But that’s another story; needless to say, Smith was surprised when I told him I knew so many philologists (actually, it’s not that many; but they do have a way of meeting me). Indeed, he was surprised that I even knew what philology was. (Now, just in case you don’t happen to know this word that is so esoteric these days that even the American Philological Association, to the chagrin of many, changed its name; it is the love of the logos, which in the case of philology is language.) In the casportuguese-irregular-vergse of Easter, I imagine it could be something else, something indebted to the first chapter of John. But that is the subject, yet again, of some other blog some other time, even if this is the appropriate weekend in both the Roman and Orthodox calendars, the first time in a long time those calendars have aligned.

Nonetheless, all that is well off topic, for I opened by mentioning about how beautiful Montana is; yet I don’t want to write about that or even how delightful Portuguese Irregular Verbs is or even how complicated Portuguese irregular verbs can be, but rather about a particular philologist of blue-collar Irish descent from Boston by the name of O’Reilly. Instead, I want to write about his father. For at this congress the younger O’Reilly happened to tell me a story over a beer. And that story is the subject of today’s blog—the story of his father, James, if names can be true.

I believe it all began in the second grade when James met Sarah McGillicutty, a fair skinned first-grader with red Irish hair and freckles enough for two. Now James, the future father of a fine philologist, loved her all through school, from Dorchester Grammar School to Dorchester High. But they went their separate ways at high school graduation, he to enlist for war, which by then was raging in Europe, she to secretarial school. Now just before they graduated that selfsame future father of my philological friend found his philological moment, writing a lovely sonnet to the girl, a poem she would treasure her whole life, like herself, a thing of beauty, a joy forever.

James married, had a family, but lost his wife to cancer some fifteen years ago. Sarah, though she was a beautiful woman, she never found true love. By age 22 she had a job in the police station as a dispatcher where she flirted with all the handsome young cops, one of whom (not the one she was hoping for) proposed—the “good match” had been encouraged not a little by her working-class father—even though he was a man easily ten years her senior. He was a certain Michael Thomas O’Mally, the stereotypical “Officer O’Mally” who walked a beat down by the docks. Before their fifth anniversary that selfsame O’Mally would be punched in the face and sadly die when trying to break up a fight in one of those rough bars that one finds all too often near the docks. Poignantly, Sarah took the call that reported an officer down.

As if to avenge his tragic death, Sarah, radiantly beautiful at age 28, went herself to officer training school, a rarity in that epoch, and became a good cop—a damn good cop, she used to say—for quite a long time, though she stayed away from the docks, working instead in a Boston suburb, Lexington being its true name. But disaster would visit her again, as she held a young man as he died, struck and abandoned by a reckless motorist. In her arms, a man whose death left her with no optimistic prophecy, no hope.

bowieSo she resigned from the force at about age 35 and moved to New Mexico, where she became a painter and met David Bowie. I did query my friend thoroughly about this, but he insisted it is true, though he did not know all the details—just that it something to do with art. Sarah became so close to that singer, staying in touch with him throughout her life, that he even once gave her two (undoubtedly expensive) oil paintings that he himself wrought. There, in lovely Santa Fe, she married a friend of Mr. Bowie, a wealthy rancher, and now nearly 40 years old even had a child by him. But tragedy struck once more, and her Irish eyes went from smiling to weeping, as she discovered, yet again that mortal things touch the heart. Her second husband also died in a bar fight that she sadly witnessed, for they were on a date to celebrate their third anniversary—such are the vagaries of life in the wild southwest.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that she moved back to the Boston area, never to enter a bar again, with or without a date. Specifically, she moved to the norther section of Cape Cod, where James encountered her when he was visiting the Cape with his church group. Managing to break away from the group, James and Sarah found a few minutes together to kindle their erstwhile romance afresh, sustaining it by a furious epistolary exchange worthy, my O’Reilly the younger would no doubt say, of the Ovidian double epistles.

And soon James took the local bus from Boston to the cape at least once a week to spend time with Sarah. On one of these trips, the loving, elderly couple tottered off to the beach, a short walk from still lovely Sarah’s lovely beach home adorned with artwork by David Bowie. After a lovely dinner and ample exchange of life stories—hers was of course the more interesting, for her son had turned out to be a diplomat, whereas James’ son is a mere philologist—the two of them took a lovely stroll along the beach, coming to rest on two Cape Cod style wooden beach chairs where they found momentary repose. A kiss, a hug, and then they reclined together, two old bodies entwined in love and friendship with the hope, perhaps of a new marriage. The sea and shore bore witness to the evening that was harbinger of such a hope, stardust zigged and zagged above them, the wind sang Ave Maria, the moon providing its face as if of a priest to pronounce them man and wife. They kissed again to seal their unspoken vows that were reflected in a brief recitation from memory by Sarah of a poem written some fifty years ago.capecodpostcard

All this would have continued on the romantic course were it not for the fact that two uninvited guests wandered into their fantasyland wedding. As they reclined there two skunks began to rub their feet and ankles. At first they thought that the soft and furry feeling was that of a cat, but lo, the smiling moon’s light proved otherwise. These skunks were quite calm and affectionate, almost domesticated by visitors, as they often haunted this beach. (The larger one, they found out later, was named “Jay” by tourists). They laughed, stayed calm and so avoided a malodorous misadventure. And that is the moral of the story, a tale of two old people’s modern love that triumphed in the end over the guiles of a skunk named Jay that, on that romantic evening, failed to make their long-lived love stink.tree-bee-drawing



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Bacon and Canada Geese

hissing-gooseYesterday, in Canada, I watched a friend who watched a Canada goose—though in reality the term branta Canadensis means “Canadian branta (goose)” not “Canada branta—watching her and hissing at her, with tongue arched like a frightened cat’s back. I mean the tongue of the goose, of course, not that of my friend. This spirited animal-human exchange was followed by a far less spirited human-human exchange about how socialized Canada really is and, then, whether the proper term is Canadian or Canada goose, with me ironically, as an American, defending the Queen’s English in Canada. For that is where we were and I still am as I write this; but yesterday, there I was, staring at my friend staring down the goose staring at her. But all that pales in comparison to the next conversation about the delightfulness of Canadian hospitality (or is it Canada hospitality?); in Latin it’s hospitium Canadense. Well, I suppose, following the goosey rules laid out above, it would be Canada hospitality.

canadian-geeseBut what about Canada bacon? Another friend, one from the sub-portion of this continent (i.e. an American friend), whom I happened to meet on the bus, said that she found Canada bacon (or is it Canadian bacon, or just bacon, since we’re actually now in Canada?) to be in her opinion quite inferior to American (specifically of course USA bacon). And while a vegan or someone who for religious reasons recuses pork products might make the case that all bacon is bad or at least to be passed over, nonetheless for carnivores with cultivated palates clearly some bacon tastes better than others. But that is, of course, a matter of opinion. My theory is that the vast majority of people who prefer ice hockey to American football will also prefer Canada bacon (or is it Canadian bacon?) to American (“genuine” USA) bacon. bacon-anyone

And so it goes. But where does it go? For Canada is not all that different from the United States, but it is different nonetheless. The nation’s collective mentality seems to me gentler than the American psyche. The country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is somehow more articulate, softer spoken and perhaps even sexier than the leader of the United States. If he hasn’t quite the same twitter following, nonetheless he arguably has far more of a rock-star quality. That said, he is, as I was saying, softer spoken. And perhaps that can be perceived as a weakness as much as it can be perceived as a strength.

But does Canada goose offer us a metaphor of the Canadian prime minister, or just make for a good story, in the end? Does it hiss like a Canada goose to warn any potential aggressor? Not so much; and perhaps there is a lesson there? A moral to a story about staring at the goose? I think Canada might be more like my friend staring in the face of a hissing goose; but I leave that aside.

And is there a lesson in the bacon? I’m not sure (in fact I doubt it sincerely). But a paranomasia, perhaps there’s that. If the United States offers the world a beacon of hope for liberty but not, these days, for refugees, then maybe Canada can offer the world’s neediest refugees a different beacon of hope, hope for refuge though of course with slightly less liberty (for, as my friend and I were discussing after the hissing goose incident, Canada is certainly more socialized and the price of such socialization would seem to be, we agreed, at least a slight cost to individual autonomy). So the beacons of hope that Canada and America each offers are just as different as their bacons. Just as Canada’s bacon larger, richer, and more expansive, so now, at least for the time being, is its offer of refuge to the world’s displaced. America’s is thinner, but still exists, I hope, just as I hope American bacon will not be going anywhere too soon, no matter how bad it is for one’s health.

But what about the Queen’s English? I think I prefer it, also richer and thicker like Canada bacon (or is it Canadian bacon) to the thinner American. But that’s just preference. For now, suffice it to say, I’ll have goose for dinner, not for friendship, and bacon of any kind for breakfast, and sincere hope for a beacon of hope all those displaced refugees, whether in Europe, or Canada, or anywhere else they may find safe haven. And someday, again, thoughtfully, carefully in America? Time will tell. For now just, let us hope for all humankind a better future, and that no one may get bit by a hissing goose.flags[addthis_horizontal_follow_buttons]


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Unprovable Things

Seneca the Younger

The world’s first blogger was, I think, Seneca the Younger. He wrote letters for publication, known as the Epistulae Morales. But they were not really letters; the epistolary genre was for Seneca a conceit. Some are entitled, “On Noise,” or “On Philosophy, Life’s Guide,” or even, “On Quiet and Study” (perhaps my personal favorite). These were, in antiquity, the equivalent of blogs, a word derived, as you likely know, from the curious combination of “web” and “log.”

So, in the tradition of Seneca, who gives us eternal dicta such as “it is possible to grasp the proof of someone’s character even from the least little things” (Epistle 52.12) and “badness is fickle, it often seeks out change not for something better but for something different” (Epistle 47), I write this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog on things that cannot be proved.

baylorIt is the second of these two Senecan maxims that directed my thoughts this week not to write about something new but rather to write about something old. I mean old in two senses, first in terms of antiquity, for I took the point of departure, as I have noted above, from Seneca, the world’s first “blogger,” long before there was a web on which to blog. Second, it is an old topic because I have touched upon it in previous weeks—liberal education. I have elsewhere mentioned that a certain major university in central Texas—Baylor by name—is in the midst of dismantling its venerable core curriculum. It is doing so in the headlong pursuit of mediocrity, a path that other universities have trod to their detriment and to the chagrin of the last remnant of veritable educators at these various institutions. Administrators love streamlined functionality. True educators, like Seneca, love nuance, depth, and breadth.

stacks-of-booksAnd, of course, in Seneca we find cautionary words, words that have stood the test of time—until now. Now, I suppose, Seneca won’t be read, won’t be found in the curriculum. Were he to be found at all, he would be found by the very rare student, perhaps in a book rarely read, rarely checked out of the library. Why? Because the students won’t have stumbled upon him in a class because change, as Seneca warns us, too often is sought out not for something better but merely for something different, something streamlined, something easier to work with, something to increase graduation rates, something to allow students the power to choose, something to accommodate.

I will close, however, with something else, namely an observation that actually relates to the title of this blog, namely something unprovable. To suggest that liberal education makes a difference in the way one thinks, the way one might potentially interact with one’s fellow human being is simply a proposition that is not quantifiable, not provable. It is, essentially, the God argument. One infers God not from the fantasy or fancy of religion but from the fantastic quality of nature. One infers Him from the goodness of life. Goodness in spite of human suffering, goodness in spite of human evil. Goodness in spite of our own terminal existence.

If you have been lucky enough to have had a liberal education, there is a chance that you know that education is not job-training. Nor is it just getting requirements “out of the way.” Rather, true liberal education is holistic, meant to mold, shape and form the individual willing to participate in it fully into a better person, a more thoughtful person. But that is unprovable. It is, again, in that way essentially parallel to the God argument. Those who have made up their minds against an argument for God will but seldom be swayed. Those who see education as job-training not training for life, they, too, are unlikely to be moved.

And thus, at my friend’s university, it seems to me, those who believe that liberal education is not really transformative are likely to prevail in the end and destroy the core of the liberal arts there. They won’t listen to Seneca when he admonishes us because they won’t be able to. They will assume Seneca is a town in New York state or, more likely, simply a kind of apple juice. Yet I close with the ancient philosopher’s words, which will perhaps hence forth but rarely be heard in central Texas and words that, in any case, cannot be proved. Yet I believe them to be true, as they take head-on modern questions and point up the need, then as now, for comprehensive, not streamlined education:

Wherefore, put off that wretched hope that you can merely sample in summary form the learnedness of “the greats.” Each work must be treated as a whole, considered as a whole. The matter is carried out by a course of study over time and by studying line after individual line of a work of genius, from which nothing is taken piecemeal without ruining it. Yet I do not deny that you can consider the pieces of it individually—of course you can—but keep in mind that a woman is not beautiful because either her leg or arm is, but rather because her whole appearance has removed the fragmented admiration of the single parts. (Epistle 33.5)

A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts depicts a young man led by a personification of Grammar into a circle of allegorical figures representing the Seven Liberal Arts: Prudentia, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music.