By Mark Alpert
Some thrillers don’t need leaders. The novel’s hero might be a lone mercenary, a rogue agent, or a private detective with a business too small or unsuccessful to have anyone on the payroll. But other thrillers feature protagonists who are police captains, military commanders, spy chiefs, or heads of state. If you’re writing that kind of novel and you want readers to admire and avidly follow your characters, you have to know how to create a good leader.
Let’s start with some examples of good leaders in genre fiction. Think of Painter Crowe, the super-competent and compassionate task-force commander in James Rollins’s Sigma Force thrillers. Think of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, Gandalf and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Leto Atreides in Dune, Queen Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass, or Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander. Or, going farther back, think of Beowulf and Shakespeare’s King Henry V. Why do we like these characters so much? What qualities do they have in common?
I’ll try to make a list, although it’ll be far from comprehensive:
A good leader has respect for the people who serve under him or her. I learned this important truth way back in 1984, during the first week of my job as a newspaper reporter for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire. It was my first real job and I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I completely ignored an important story, or at least it was something that seemed very important in the context of local news. I don’t remember the details, but maybe it was some new business opening or housing development that had been announced at a town meeting? Whatever the details, the story soon appeared in a rival newspaper, and the Eagle’s editor was furious that I hadn’t written about it. But he didn’t blow up and start yelling at me in the newsroom. Instead, he led me to an office upstairs and chewed me out in private. Even though I was just a 23-year-old screw-up, he had respect for me, enough to realize that it wouldn’t be right to embarrass me in public.
A bully, in contrast, has no respect for subordinates and doesn’t receive any in return. We’ve all seen bosses like that, right? They rail at their underlings and treat them like dirt, and then they wonder why nothing gets done right. And they never learn.
A good leader is smart and patient. Remember the TV cop show NYPD Blue? It ran from 1993 to 2005 and was considered pretty daring for its time, especially for its warts-and-all portrayal of Detective Andy Sipowicz, who in the early episodes was an openly racist alcoholic. To Sipowicz’s dismay, the boss of his precinct’s detective squad is a black lieutenant named Arthur Fancy. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV series, Lieutenant Fancy teaches Sipowicz to have some empathy for the black people he interrogates. He takes Andy to dinner at a rib joint that looks a lot like Sylvia’s, the famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem. Nowadays Harlem has become largely gentrified and Sylvia’s is full of tourists and white people, but I remember going there in the early 1990s (when the NYPD Blue episode aired) and being the only white person in the place. Sipowicz finds himself in the same situation, and he squirms uncomfortably in his seat as he eats dinner with his boss. Lieutenant Fancy asks Sipowicz why he seems so distressed: “You’re being served, aren’t you, Andy? They cooked those ribs for you. Maybe they wanted to spit in the plate, but they didn’t. They served your white ass just like they would anyone else who came in here. Even though some of them hate your guts. So why would you feel uncomfortable, Andy? You got your meal. What difference does it make what they’re thinking? That they don’t like you, that’s just an opinion. Why should that bother you?”
Then the lieutenant adds the clincher: “Now what if they had badges and guns?”
This struck me as a very smart leadership technique. Instead of yelling at Sipowicz or giving him a sterile lecture, Lieutenant Fancy takes the time to vividly show him the error of his ways.
A good leader doesn’t lie. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hesitated to include it in the list, and yet so many bad leaders ignore it. How can you trust a parent or boss or politician who has a cavalier disregard for the truth? A good leader doesn’t distort the facts to make himself or herself look good. No, a good leader is honest about setbacks and freely admits mistakes.
Let’s go back to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He was honest with Frodo about the existential threat they faced (i.e., Sauron). He didn’t sugarcoat things. And he didn’t make insincere, pandering promises. He made it very clear that the odds were against them, and that there was a good chance that none of the hobbits would return to the Shire alive. And yet the Fellowship followed him.
A good leader isn’t petty or boorish. This one seems like a no-brainer too, but unfortunately our society is starting to encourage childish behavior among adults. When it comes to fiction, though, readers continue to be disgusted by spiteful leaders and their tantrums. Would we still admire King Henry V if he was a pompous braggart? Or a draft dodger? Of course not. In Shakespeare’s play, the king does a remarkable thing on the night before the Battle of Agincourt: he dresses as a common soldier and goes among his troops to gauge how they’re feeling. This prepares him for the stirring speech he gives to his army the next day. The king acknowledges that the English soldiers are vastly outnumbered by the French, but he proclaims that this is actually an advantage: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.” I’ll quote the end of the speech just because it’s so good:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
A good leader appeals to our best instincts, not our worst. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our nation’s greatest leader, and even his mistakes were noble-hearted. When he became president in 1861, he still hoped to persuade the seceding Confederate states to peacefully return to the Union, as evidenced by the closing lines of his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” As we all know, Lincoln was unduly optimistic at that time. His peace overtures were rejected, leading to four years of devastating, fratricidal warfare. In his second inaugural address, though, Lincoln was still astoundingly benevolent: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In real life, this kind of nobility is rare. Contemporary leaders are much more likely to sow division and target scapegoats and play the zero-sum game of “us versus them.” So I think it’s up to the novelists and poets to restore our ideals of leadership. In 1939 W.H. Auden wrote a poem to commemorate the death of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the final lines reflect his hope that great literature can repair and revive our society:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Leadership, both good and bad, is at the heart of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can learn more about the book here.