Leadership Lessons in Ender’s Game

enders-game-posterI had a meltdown Friday night. Fairly small thing, but one damn thing on top of many other things had me spending about fifteen minutes screaming at the heavens, demanding to know why I keep getting, um… used for the universe’s gratification without benefit of lubricant… when, day in and day out, I feel like I do nothing but the right things.

Huge self-pity fest. You have those sometimes. Nothing to do but get over it. I consider it the equivalent of the pressure valve on the water-heater kicking off, venting off some steam, and preventing the whole system from exploding. If it happens once, you may not even notice, or you notice and just monitor. If it happens once too often, well, there’s an obvious need for intervention.

But the most of the problems that caused me to have this meltdown were directly attributable to the fact that someone, somewhere along the line, failed to do what I (reasonably, course) expected them to do. I suspect, if those people were to be forced to be honest and explain why they didn’t do what I expected them to do, their answer would be that doing what I expected them to required that they make a decision, or take a position, or otherwise take action that was not being taken by every other lemming around them. In other words, I expected them to display a little leadership, and they didn’t.

There are leaders in this world, there are followers. One group is small, one is big. Guess which? There are also followers who are told they are leaders or who delude themselves into thinking they are leaders. That’s the result of a belief that “all men are created equal” means we all have the same skill set and the same potential. And that’s bullshit. There are people who can’t look out for themselves, much less anyone else. I don’t know what’s to be done with them, but promoting them to positions of leadership because we assume everyone can be a leader most assuredly not an option.

After melting down, bitching and cursing, drinking, shouting at the heavens, what do you do next when a failure of leadership leaves you out in the cold on your own? Well, you damn well lead yourself, of course. You step up and take responsibility for fixing the problem, and you don’t expect anyone will necessarily be happy about it, other than you. (People are very rarely happy with their leaders’ solutions. They don’t have any solutions of their own, of course, they just reserve the right to be unhappy about the ones put in place by others. A lot of alleged leaders use this fact to excuse their incompetence, but it’s not an excuse, unless they can demonstrate that they did what they set out to do, and can prove their solution is sound. Most can’t.)

Okay. Problem solved. I already knew all this anyway. I just needed to get pissed and then remember it. But, as you’re climbing back up out of the pit, it’s nice to have someone calling out some encouraging words to you. You know, like all those prisoners did for Bruce Wayne as The Dark Knight rose.

What more timely happenstance for me, then, waking after falling asleep angry and forlorn, then that I should go Saturday afternoon and see a film which has a lot to say about leadership, all of it, from my perspective, very true?

Ender’s Game is a quite faithful adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. I read it back during my days of training as an associate librarian, and I loved it. I found it brave, full of interesting characters and challenging ideas. I was excited to see the film, especially since I’d been so impressed by its young star, Asa Butterworth, in Hugo, and here he was working with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley.

Ender’s game chronicles the journey of a young man, a third child in a world where population growth restrictions make third children rare, as he becomes an exceptional military leader. It’s a little disturbing for some viewers, watching a young teenager go off to war. It looks an awful lot like a society is trading innocence for safety. I think that’s the point. Isn’t that what we do in war?

It had been twenty-five years since I’d read the book, so a lot of this was new territory for me. And, of course, each time you experience a story again, you see something in it you didn’t see the last time. This time, I was struck by what Ender taught those around him (including us viewers on the other side of the fourth wall) about leadership:

A leader asks questions – bad leaders, especially scared leaders, hate to be asked questions. They’re nervous enough about their positions without someone challenging their decisions. Bad leaders don’t want to be asked questions, and they don’t want to ask questions of their leaders, because their leaders might be upset with them. Ender asked questions. When he suspected his emails home were being blocked, he asked why, and everyone learned that all their emails were being blocked. He pissed off the higher-ups. But here’s the thing: He asked questions that everyone else was thinking. Everyone benefitted from them being asked. Everyone got information they would not, otherwise, have had, if he hadn’t asked.

A leader does not pretend to be a follower – “I have a problem respecting someone just because they outrank me,” he says to his Colonel when asked about the troubles he’s having. (I think that’s an exact quote.) Amen, little brother. Respect must be earned. Now, I think it makes sense to treat everyone with a measure of respect, and to assume that those who are in positions of leadership have earned their positions… until they prove otherwise. But there’s a difference between being disrespectful and refusing to follow capricious and arbitrary instructions. Someone who’s born to be a leader can easily accept being treated as an equal, but they generally have a problem being treated as an inferior. There’s nothing wrong with that. (I realize that there’s a long-standing military tradition of officers treating the lower ranks as inferiors. I come from a military family. I would never succeed in the military. I’ve also know a lot of people who’ve tried to apply the principles of military leadership to non-military situations. It’s a dubious strategy.)

A leader doesn’t always wait for permission – sometimes you can’t. Most of the time, permission is a luxury you can afford. It’s nice to have permission, because it means you’re embarking on a path that others agree with. But sometimes the meeting the overall goal requires that you take a risk, do something you know someone else won’t like, even do something you’ve been told not to. When Ender is promoted to a new squadron in battle school, a squadron with a perfect win-record in competing against other squadrons, he’s confronted with a resentful CO, an angry, short boy with Napoleon syndrome. His name is Bonzo Madrid. Bonzo orders Ender to hang back and do nothing in competition. Ender listens until he sees a friend in trouble, then he acts to protect her.

A leader understands that others have needs too – as part of his attempt to hold Ender back and protect his perfect win record, Bonzo orders him not to spend his free time practicing for battle. Ender 1) asks for a private conference, 2) points out to Bonzo that it will be easier to trade him to another squadron if he’s seen as a good fighter instead of a bad one and 3) suggests to Bonzo a way to reverse his decision without losing face. Although he doesn’t respect Bonzo, Ender understands that it’s not fair to call out anyone in front of a crowd. He asks for what he wants while framing it in terms of how it will help the other guy. He does what he can to help the other guy look good.

Too many people think that the way to get what they want is to lay out how much they need X, Y or Z. They assume that, once they’ve made an emotional plea based on need, only a heartless bastard would turn them down. And then they tell everyone you are a heartless bastard if you do turn them down. So they don’t get what they want, but they do make an enemy. It’s a flawed strategy, employed too often in my own country in my own time. People need something, so they not only ask for it but demand it, and just assume that someone must provide it for them because they need it, never mind whether or not there’s any benefit to the ones providing for their needs. They don’t know or care that their would-be providers have needs. They elevate them to the status of gods, above need, even though they don’t realize they’re doing so.

This kind of myopia may suit followers okay, because they exist to be cared for. Leaders must have a bigger picture perspective. They must think about what’s in it for every player on the board.

A leader displays balance – Ender has two older siblings. His brother was not accepted for battle school because he was too violent. His sister was rejected for being too compassionate. Ender has a compassionate nature. He says he triumphs by understanding his enemy, actually being able to love him, and that gives him the ability to win over him. (Perhaps a bit more self-analysis than one expects from someone who’s supposed to be about twelve years old? Maybe.) A leader has to be able to access all the qualities that make up a whole person, in balance.

A leader is aware of his darker side, but doesn’t let his fear of it hold him back – Ender’s brother Peter is more than “too violent.” He’s a freaking sociopath. (Okay, that’s an amateur diagnosis. But all we see of Peter is him mistreating Ender, at one point almost choking him to death.) Several times during the film, we see that Peter is very much on Ender’s mind as he’s preparing for battle. He even says in a letter to his sister that he feels Peter’s nature in him when he fights, and he doesn’t like it.

A leader is often alone – Harrison Ford’s character is not a nice guy in this movie. He’s warping brilliant young people into twisted killers. He actively encourages the kids to believe that they have no friends, that everyone is competition, that they’re on their own. Seeing everyone as competition is probably the most insidious mindset that’s promoted here. Poisoning the kids to believe they don’t and can’t have friends is a terrible thing to do. But there are grains of truth here. That’s the really insidious part. A leader often is alone. He often can’t turn to others for help. He has to be able to decide, without support, that the course of action he’s following is the right one. (That’s not the same as ignoring the advice of others and disregarding their opinions. Pigheadedness and clear vision are not the same thing.) My father has a picture in his library of Gary Cooper, wearing his badge and standing alone in the street, waiting for a gun fight, in the film High Noon. He has that picture because, so often in his career, he was “the lone gunman,” the only one willing to fight a battle that needed to be fought. He always impressed on me that sometimes you’re just alone. You still have to walk down that street. This lonely thought is balanced by the fact that…

A leader needs his team – Ender doesn’t fall for his Colonel’s line of bull, in the end. Throughout the story, he’s earning the respect of others and building a team he can depend on. He doesn’t succeed on his own. He succeeds because he has people he can trust to do their jobs, even if he can’t watch them every second. A leader doesn’t lead by sticking his nose into everyone’s business. He has to be able to trust.

A leader leads by example – Unlike the other leaders shown in the film, Ender does not lecture or badger the people he’s in charge of.

A leader is often used and taken advantage of – one thing I’ve heard about this film is that it’s disturbing in its depiction of how these children are used by society, in the person of Harrison Ford’s character. They’re not just used, they’re selected because they’re gifted and special, and they’re twisted into something that, at any other time, we wouldn’t want children to be: killing machines. Ender is selected because he has some of his brother’s violent nature. Indeed, in the book, it is at age six that Ender is picked because he beats a child until he can’t get up again. A child who does that should receive therapy, not an appointment to an exclusive school. But, in this disturbing vision of war, Ender is valued for the worst that’s in him, as well as the best. And those who want to make him a leader and a hero don’t really care what ultimately happens to him. A lot of people want to use someone with ability to meet their goals, to wield them like a big stick in their battles, with little or no regard for them as people. This is something to watch out for. Unfortunately for Ender, he learns this lesson quite late. Fortunately for the story, he realizes that…

A leader doesn’t see victory the same way everyone else does – When all is said and done, and others are rejoicing over his victory, Ender sees only that he’s been used, and that a great wrong has been done. He takes the power and prestige he’s gained, and uses it in the only way that seems moral to him. He tries to right the wrong he was tricked into committing.

This is not a pretty story. It’s definitely not a popcorn flick, or a happy action movie. It’s a dark story that makes you think. I found a lot of value in it, especially for the lessons listed above. If it makes you too uncomfortable, well, that’s valid too. It cover uncomfortable topics, and you just may not be one of the people who needs the message. In the end, while he’s surrounded by immorality and forced to do immoral things, Ender has a moral center, and is a moral being.

Afterward: I suppose I should also touch on discussion, revitalized by the release of the movie, about Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs. He has a reputation as a homophobe. I know very little about that. I know he’s a Mormon, and thus is probably quite socially conservative. Social conservatives believe that homosexuality is immoral. Well, I certainly don’t share that belief. It’s rooted in ancient religious injunctions which were merely intended to make sure that the sect grew in numbers, through birth rate if nothing else. Neither Judaism, Christianity nor Mormonism need to grow that way any more. So hanging on to that old morality is silly, and hating people because of that outdated morality is, well, sinful.

But I do not necessarily reject a writer or artist because he holds a belief I don’t agree with, even if I think his beliefs may be immoral. Oscar Wilde was a socialist, but I still read and enjoy Oscar Wilde, and even quote his works. I suppose you could argue there’s a difference, since homophobia preaches hate and socialism doesn’t. I find both philosophies, in practice, have led to hate, violence and unhappiness. I don’t like either one. I think they both hurt people. I’m aware a lot of people don’t feel that way. I just want to make it clear that I don’t share Card’s view on the subject. I simply think Ender’s Game is a story worth experiencing. In my mind, it’s not affected by his personal political agenda. 

Leave a Reply