Leo Tolstoy on leadership

Yamashiro Maru (1963-1974), the world's first merchant ship with a bulbous bow

Yamashiro Maru (1963-1974), the world's first merchant ship with a bulbous bow.
Image credit: Ripples in Time

While an Event is being brought about men express their ideas—their wishes with reference to the Event in question; and, as the Event develops out of the united actions of many persons, one of the expressed ideas or wishes is sure to be fulfilled, if only approximately and not to the letter. Hence, when one out of all these expressions of opinion is fulfilled, this particular opinion becomes linked to the Event brought about and accepted as the order which has directly led to and caused the Event. A company of laborers are dragging a tree-trunk along. Every one of them gives his opinion as to how and in which direction the gang ought to pull together. The tree-trunk is dragged to its destination, and it then turns out that the gang got hold of it and pulled it along just as one of the laborers had suggested. This man then was the giver of the order. Here we have Command and Power in their original and primary form. The laborer, or individual who has worked hardest with his hands has had the less facility for meditation as to what he has been doing and for consideration as to what will come of the united labor of the gang,—and for giving orders. The individual who busied himself most with issuing orders to the others, in consequence of his hard verbal work, evidently has had less time for manual labor.

In a large concourse of men, all united to one common end, that fraction which takes the less direct share in the general work in proportion to its energy in issuing commands, is still more clearly defined.

A man when he is acting alone, always bears within himself a certain set of considerations which have guided—as he thinks—his past work, which act as a justification to himself of what he may be at the moment engaged in, and which direct him in his intentions as to his future undertakings.

Concourses of men do exactly the same, appointing those who do not take a share of the dirty work, to think out their considerations, justifications, and to map out the future for the welfare of their united enterprise.

For reasons which may be definite or indefinite to us, the French suddenly begin to murder and cut each others’ throats; and parallel with this fact there marches its justification in the expression of the will of the people that this is all-essential to the well-being of France,—to freedom, and to equality! People stop cutting each others’ throats, and parallel with this event comes the justification of the necessity of unity of Power, of resistance to Europe and so forth. Men rush from the West into the East, killing their fellow creatures, and corresponding with this last event come words about the glory of France and of the humiliation of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of events have no general meaning and contradict one another,—like the murder of a man just after acknowledging his right to live,—and like the murdering of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England! Yet these justifications have an indispensable signification to contemporary judgment.

These justifications shift the moral responsibility from the shoulders of those persons who brought the events to pass. Temporary objects are like the sweepers in front of trains which clear the road before the engine,—for they clear the road of the moral responsibility of individuals. Without these justifications the very simple question which confronts us in the examination of every event would have to remain unanswered, namely: How is it that millions of men come to commit accumulated crimes, such as wars, mutual slaughter, etc.!

In the present conditions of state and social life in Europe, would it be possible to imagine any event which had not been counted upon, prescribed and brought about by emperors, ministers, parliaments, or newspapers? Could any united action exist which could not justify itself either by the plea of the unity of the state, of nationality, of the balance of power in Europe, or of civilization? So that every event accomplished must inevitably fall in with some already expressed hope, and being thereby apparently justified, it figures as the fulfilment of the will of one or more individuals.

A ship moving through the waters, whatever the direction of its course, will always have a current of the cleft waves visible in front of it. To the passengers on board this ship the motion of these parted waves will be the only movement visible. Only by watching this motion of the current very closely, and by comparing it with the motion of the ship are we convinced that every motion of the wave-current is determined by the motion of the ship and that we were led into error by the fact that we ourselves are slowly moving forward.

And in the same way we observe a similar fact if we watch closely the movements, hour by hour, of historical personages (that is if we first grant the condition, which is a sìne quâ non, of each event, i.e., the uninterruptedness of its progress, in time) and if we keep strictly in view the necessary connection between our historical personages and the masses. So long as a ship proceeds in one direction, there is but one current—one and the same, flowing steadily away from the bow; when the ship continually changes her course, the current changes, as frequently. But wherever the ship may go to, or in whatever direction she may turn, there will always be this current going before her as she sails along.

Whatever happens it invariably seems that this very occurrence has been foreseen and ordered. Let the ship go where she please, the current—although it has nothing to do with the guidance of the ship and cannot affect her motion—seethes beneath her bow; and to us who watch from afar, this current will appear to be not only flowing spontaneously and voluntarily, but will ever seem to be directing the movement of the vessel.
Count Léon Tolstoï in War and Peace: A historical novel; Borodino, the French at Moscow; Epilogue (1812-1820), Volume 2, translated into the French by “A Russian Lady” and thence into the English by Clara Bell, (New York: William S. Gottsberger, 1886), p. 359.

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"While an Event is being brought about"


This sequence is sometimes paraphrased as “A leader is the wave pushed ahead by the ship.”

Leo Tolstoy Posted on behalf of on Tuesday, March 16th, 2010 under Quotations.

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