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

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

This post is sponsored by St. Martin’s Academy.

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.

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.

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?

Patrick Whalen is the Headmaster of St. Martin’s Academy, a farm-based boarding high school for boys opening in fall 2018. Patrick served on Active Duty in the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2016 and has published poetry, translations, and articles in a variety of journals and books.  He and his wife Kristi have four children and live in Fort Scott, Kansas.  
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3 People Replies to “Leadership in a Land of Tears: What “The Little Prince” Teaches Us about Responsibility”

  1. H. Gibbs Bauer

    Amazing. I’ve read The Little Prince many times but never through that lens.

  2. Thank you very much for this article. also, I read your bio—a farm based boarding school sounds like GENIUS. god bless that endeavor.


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