Leadership in a Land of Tears: What “The Little Prince” Teaches Us about Responsibility

“I​ ​did​ ​not​ ​know​ ​how​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​him,​ ​how​ ​to​ ​catch​ ​up​ ​with​ ​him…​ ​the​ ​land​ ​of​ ​tears​ ​is​ ​so​ ​mysterious.” -Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery

Most​ ​major​ ​bookstores​ ​will​ ​have​ ​a​ ​section​ ​devoted​ ​to​ ​leadership.​ ​​ ​Perhaps​ ​you​ ​have​ ​seen them?​ ​​ ​Dominating​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​are​ ​books​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​well-intentioned​ ​how-to​ ​advice​ ​that​ ​is difficult​ ​to​ ​distinguish​ ​from​ ​the​ ​platitudes​ ​and​ ​bromides​ ​that​ ​fill​ ​its​ ​neighbors.​ ​​ ​Probably​ ​never will​ ​you​ ​find​ ​the​ ​French​ ​author​ ​Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery’s​ ​pamphlet​ ​length​ ​book​ ​titled​ ​​The Little​​ Prince​​​ on​ ​the​ ​shelves​ ​devoted​ ​to​ ​leadership,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​offers​ ​an​ ​insight​ ​we​ ​desperately​ ​need​ ​in order​ ​to​ ​mitigate​ ​the​ ​hollowness​ ​in​ ​our​ ​understanding​ ​and​ ​practice​ ​of​ ​leadership.

The​ ​quote​ ​from​ ​​The​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​​above​ ​describes​ ​a​ ​fictional​ ​meeting​ ​between​ ​a​ ​space travelling​ ​little​ ​boy—apparently​ ​a​ ​prince—and​ ​the​ ​author.​ ​​ ​The​ ​Little​ ​Prince,​ ​visiting​ ​earth​ ​from an​ ​asteroid,​ ​has​ ​explained​ ​that​ ​he​ ​is​ ​afraid​ ​for​ ​his​ ​flower—a​ ​rose—that​ ​grows​ ​on​ ​Asteroid​ ​B-612. One​ ​is​ ​never​ ​certain​ ​that​ ​an​ ​untended​ ​flower​ ​will​ ​not​ ​be​ ​eaten​ ​by​ ​a​ ​hungry​ ​celestial​ ​sheep,​ ​and realizing​ ​just​ ​that​ ​possibility​ ​has​ ​brought​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​to​ ​tears.​ ​​ ​Antoine​ ​de​ ​Saint-Exupery struggles​ ​to​ ​console​ ​his​ ​small​ ​companion​ ​in​ ​this​ ​difficulty.​ ​​ ​But​ ​as​ ​he​ ​puts​ ​it,​ ​he​ ​is​ ​unable​ ​“to catch​ ​up​ ​with​ ​him.”

What Makes a Leader?

Antoine​ ​is​ ​an​ ​older​ ​man,​ ​a​ ​pilot​ ​on​ ​a​ ​mission​ ​gone​ ​wrong,​ ​who​ ​finds​ ​himself​ ​stranded​ ​in the​ ​desert​ ​with​ ​a​ ​broken​ ​airplane​ ​and​ ​a​ ​young​ ​prince​ ​who​ ​has​ ​just​ ​dropped​ ​in​ ​from​ ​outer​ ​space. Antoine​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​fix​ ​his​ ​engine​ ​but​ ​is​ ​likely​ ​to​ ​die​ ​of​ ​dehydration​ ​before​ ​he​ ​can.​ ​​ ​In​ ​the meantime,​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​is​ ​crying​ ​on​ ​account​ ​of​ ​the​ ​sheep​ ​and​ ​flower​ ​situation.​ ​​ ​Perhaps inexplicably,​ ​Antoine​ ​assumes​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​his​ ​young​ ​visitor’s​ ​tears​ ​although​ ​he​ ​is​ ​not certain​ ​what​ ​to​ ​do​ ​about​ ​them.

You​ ​see,​ ​Antoine​ ​is​ ​a​ ​leader.​ ​​ ​He​ ​is​ ​confronted​ ​with​ ​two​ ​problems:​ ​a​ ​malfunctioning engine;​ ​and​ ​a​ ​sheep/flower/tears​ ​situation.​ ​​ ​Generally,​ ​engines​ ​can​ ​be​ ​fixed;​ ​a​ ​​mal​ functioning thing​ ​can​ ​be​ ​made​ ​to​ ​function​ ​properly;​ ​one​ ​exerts​ ​one’s​ ​will​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​malfunctioning​ ​object and,​ ​with​ ​a​ ​little​ ​luck​ ​and​ ​know-how,​ ​the​ ​thing​ ​functions.​ ​​ ​Whereas,​ ​for​ ​Antoine​ ​to​ ​attempt​ ​to impose​ ​his​ ​will​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​as​ ​if​ ​he​ ​were​ ​an​ ​engine​ ​to​ ​be​ ​fixed​ ​would​ ​be​ ​worse​ ​than useless.​ ​​ ​No.​ ​​ ​What​ ​to​ ​do​ ​about​ ​the​ ​possibility​ ​of​ ​hungry​ ​celestial​ ​sheep​ ​is​ ​the​ ​​real​​ ​challenge. Antoine​ ​chooses​ ​the​ ​more​ ​difficult​ ​mission—to​ ​attempt​ ​consoling​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince,​ ​and​ ​it​ ​is more​ ​difficult​ ​because​ ​the​ ​Prince​ ​is​ ​not​ ​malfunctioning;​ ​he​ ​is​ ​suffering.

Antoine​ ​is​ ​a​ ​leader​ ​because,​ ​while​ ​suffering​ ​and​ ​in​ ​danger​ ​himself,​ ​he​ ​assumes​ ​the​ ​burden of​ ​the​ ​Prince’s​ ​suffering.

Suffering and Responsibility

Antoine​ ​is​ ​a​ ​leader​ ​because,​ ​while​ ​suffering​ ​and​ ​in​ ​danger​ ​himself,​ ​he​ ​assumes​ ​the​ ​burden of​ ​the​ ​Prince’s​ ​suffering.​ ​​ ​He​ ​accepts​ ​the​ ​responsibility​ ​of​ ​pursuing​ ​the​ ​Little​ ​Prince​ ​into​ ​the mysterious​ ​“land​ ​of​ ​tears”​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​recover​ ​him.​ ​​ ​Sometimes​ ​a​ ​leader​ ​will​ ​blaze​ ​a​ ​trail​ ​for​ ​his followers;​ ​sometimes​ ​he​ ​will​ ​discipline​ ​them;​ ​but​ ​always​ ​he​ ​is​ ​responsible​ ​for​ ​them—always​ ​he is​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​catch​ ​up​ ​to​ ​them.​ ​​ ​A​ ​leader​ ​is​ ​never​ ​one​ ​who​ ​simply​ ​exercises​ ​his​ ​will​ ​over​ ​his subordinates.​ ​​ ​Instead,​ ​he​ ​makes​ ​himself​ ​responsible​ ​for​ ​their​ ​wills;​ ​he​ ​suffers​ ​the​ ​consequences of​ ​their​ ​actions;​ ​he​ ​joins​ ​them​ ​in​ ​their​ ​suffering​ ​because​ ​only​ ​when​ ​leader​ ​and​ ​follower​ ​are together​ ​in​ ​the​ ​“land​ ​of​ ​tears”​ ​can​ ​one​ ​lead​ ​the​ ​other​ ​out.​ ​​ ​In​ ​fact,​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​provides​ ​the first​ ​and​ ​final​ ​word​ ​on​ ​the​ ​matter:​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Incarnation,​ ​Christ​ ​the​ ​leader​ ​assumes​ ​humanity​ ​in​ ​order to​ ​lead​ ​His​ ​people​ ​to​ ​salvation.​ ​​ ​The​ ​word​ ​educate​ ​preserves​ ​this​ ​fundamental​ ​truth​ ​about leadership:​ ​to​ ​educate​ ​(from​ ​the​ ​Latin​ ​prefix​ ​‘​e​’​ ​meaning​ ​“out”​ ​and​​ ​​ ‘​ducere​’​ ​“to​ ​lead”)​ ​is​ ​to​ ​lead someone​ ​out.

There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​leadership​ ​without​ ​an​ ​acknowledgement​ ​of​ ​this​ ​responsibility​ ​to​ ​pursue​ ​the other​ ​in​ ​all​ ​his​ ​subjectivity​ ​and​ ​suffering​ ​regardless​ ​of​ ​the​ ​circumstances​ ​and​ ​consequences. Christianity’s​ ​central​ ​theme​ ​is​ ​the​ ​conflation​ ​of​ ​these​ ​apparent​ ​opposites:​ ​to​ ​pursue​ ​and​ ​to lead—as​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Exodus​ ​where​ ​God​ ​leads​ ​His​ ​people​ ​out​ ​of​ ​Egypt;​ ​or​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​when​ ​He pursues​ ​and​ ​catches​ ​us​ ​in​ ​our​ ​human​ ​suffering.​ ​​ ​The​ ​archetypal​ ​model​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leader​ ​is​ ​One​ ​who has​ ​pursued​ ​us​ ​into​ ​our​ ​cosmological​ ​vale​ ​of​ ​tears;​ ​who​ ​pierced​ ​history​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​be​ ​pierced​ ​by history;​ ​who​ ​made​ ​each​ ​of​ ​us​ ​“unique​ ​in​ ​all​ ​the​ ​world”​ ​by​ ​catching​ ​and​ ​joining​ ​us​ ​in​ ​our suffering,​ ​and​ ​who​ ​assumed​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​all​ ​that​ ​suffering​ ​in​ ​the​ ​crucifixion.

The​ ​archetypal​ ​model​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leader​ ​is​ ​One​ ​who has​ ​pursued​ ​us​ ​into​ ​our​ ​cosmological​ ​vale​ ​of​ ​tears;​ ​who​ ​pierced​ ​history​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​be​ ​pierced​ ​by history;​ ​who​ ​made​ ​each​ ​of​ ​us​ ​“unique​ ​in​ ​all​ ​the​ ​world”

Leadership is Not Safe

To​ ​choose​ ​responsibility​ ​is​ ​to​ ​choose​ ​leadership,​ ​and​ ​leadership​ ​is​ ​rarely​ ​a​ ​safe​ ​or​ ​easy choice.​ ​​ ​How​ ​often​ ​do​ ​good​ ​works​ ​falter​ ​for​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​strong​ ​and​ ​willing​ ​leaders?—for​ ​lack​ ​of those​ ​willing​ ​to​ ​assume​ ​responsibility​ ​and​ ​all​ ​the​ ​risk​ ​it​ ​implies?​ ​​ ​How​ ​often​ ​do​ ​families​ ​falter​ ​for lack​ ​of​ ​fathers​ ​who​ ​embrace​ ​their​ ​role​ ​as​ ​leaders​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sacrifices​ ​of​ ​leadership?​ ​​ ​Responsibility makes​ ​one​ ​vulnerable​ ​in​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​Antoine​ ​becomes​ ​vulnerable​ ​to​ ​exposure​ ​and​ ​death​ ​in​ ​the desert​ ​for​ ​his​ ​little​ ​friend;​ ​or​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​Christ​ ​becomes​ ​vulnerable​ ​to​ ​human​ ​malady​ ​and malice​ ​through​ ​the​ ​Incarnation​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Eucharist.​ ​​ ​It​ ​is​ ​easiest​ ​and​ ​safest​ ​to​ ​remain​ ​incognito​ ​in one’s​ ​family,​ ​community,​ ​country,​ ​and​ ​church—easiest​ ​and​ ​safest​ ​to​ ​let​ ​one’s​ ​Little​ ​Prince sojourn​ ​alone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​land​ ​of​ ​tears.​ ​​ ​But​ ​as​ ​Saint-Exupery​ ​makes​ ​clear​ ​in​ ​his​ ​beautiful​ ​and profound​ ​little​ ​book,​ ​the​ ​burden​ ​of​ ​assuming​ ​responsibility​ ​for​ ​others,​ ​entailing​ ​suffering​ ​as​ ​it does,​ ​is​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​purest​ ​acts​ ​of​ ​love.​ ​​ ​It​ ​is​ ​this​ ​act​ ​of​ ​love​ ​that​ ​incites​ ​the​ ​pursuit​ ​of​ ​the beloved—this​ ​act​ ​of​ ​love​ ​that​ ​is​ ​leadership.

Suffering​ ​is​ ​a​ ​given​ ​in​ ​life—so​ ​why​ ​not​ ​lead​ ​a​ ​little?


This article first appeared on The Catholic Gentleman