The following contains spoilers from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
Fictitious leaders have been portrayed in many different ways, but they usually have their flaws. A good story is often a reflection of the way things are, and our own leaders each have their particular brands of flaws–they are human, after all. A compelling movie can draw us in and give us a closer look at how the world works on an emotional level. We get a chance to see what it feels like to be responsible for the fate of a nation or to be leading a revolution of peasants in Medieval times. From the battlefield in “Lawrence of Arabia,” to the toys in “Toy Story” or gangsters in “The Godfather”–leaders are flawed, and that’s partly what makes them so compelling to watch.
There is a new type of heroic leader character that has begun to emerge (and by begun, I mean within the last 100 years–a short time period in the context of literature). It’s a potent mix of the classic, perfect hero from children’s stories and the gritty, dirty reality we’re reminded of every time we turn on the TV and watch the news.
These characters “truly are incorruptible” as the Joker calls Batman in “The Dark Knight.” They are fervent believers in the difference between right and wrong, and despite constantly being forced to make impossible decisions, they always grit their teeth and “do the right thing.” How does that make for a compelling hero? Isn’t that the whole reason we like flawed characters because we’re flawed too? A flawless character honestly sounds boring and trite–most of the time. It also seems to come at odds with the wave of ultra-realism in recent film and television.
Where these stories become compelling is when that “flawless” character takes a serious toll for all the right things he or she has done. That’s where we connect on a human level: many of us feel like we’re constantly being punished for making the right choices, that doing the right thing scrapes your soul down to a sliver of what it once was.
This “flawless” character is particularly popular in the context of leadership, and it is a reflection of our society’s deep longing for such a leader. I’ve heard from all sides of the political spectrum how many believe that our system is built in such a way that it can only serve to push unfit politicians into office. Even J. R. R. Tolkien once said that, “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)… The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on) is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Many share his sentiment here, especially during the last few decades. It’s like being a politician and being a good person are mutually exclusive.
Tired of the constant political games, the “House of Cards” style maneuvering and rhetoric, and general dishonesty all around, most people simply yearn for a good person to take them forward. The leaders in these stories are certainly qualified–they are often warriors and thinkers, but above all else they are driven by a strong moral compass. This seems to be the last thing on the minds of many politicians that “lead” our country toward a successful career for themselves.
I’ve outlined some traits seen in these types of characters:
- As discussed earlier, they always do what they think is right. Sometimes they are wrong (tricked, misinformed, naive), but they never compromise their own integrity. And they pay for it, deeply.
- They are usually physically strong and a skilled, courageous warrior. They have seen the worst that the world can offer–the horrors of war–and come out wiser for it.
- However, this strength is tempered by a tenderness and understanding. They lead with their heart first, and though it gets broken time and time again they accept the burden and continue on.
- In the same vein, they’re reluctant leaders. Not only do politics disgust them (though they rise to the call as yet another sacrifice), but war disgusts them too.
In season 7 of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow hears the comment that, “We all enjoy what we’re good at.” After a moment of his signature brooding, he responds with, “I don’t.” From the first episode, we know Jon is good at handling a sword. He has succeeded time and time again in battles and at war, but he doesn’t like it. Still, he rolls up his sleeves and does what’s right.
- They are first called naive, and they usually are at the beginning, but as the story progresses we realize that the cynical and pessimistic are just not strong enough to lead others and fight a battle they’d rather stay away from.
- They are willing to sacrifice everything for those that they feel responsible for. More than just their life. Many warrior type stories focus on attaining “glory,” but Batman’s willingness to give up his life is unquestioned from the beginning. In “The Dark Knight” he also shows that he’s willing to give up and smear Bruce Wayne and Batman’s reputations alike. They will give up everything but their own soul, and that is guarded first and foremost.
- They are often orphans or abandoned by their parents. This may be why they feel like a child of “the people.”
- They’re quiet. They speak after thinking first (though they often have to learn this lesson the hard way), and always seem to have a deep sense of gravity to everything they say.
- Most of all: they give. They give and give and give until there’s nothing left. They are true servants.
Whenever I bring up something like this, I often get asked why we would want such a leader. Someone who is too shortsighted to realize that the ends sometimes do justify the means is going to make destructive decisions based on their stubbornness to always “do the right thing.” If someone jumps on a grenade to save their buddies, that’s heroic but not smart if you’re the president of the United States. As epic and emotional as it was, Jon Snow made a tactically bad decision when he charged forward alone in “The Battle of the Bastards.”
Unfortunately, you cannot be a good leader without the willingness to give up everything, nor can you be a good leader without a strong moral compass to be your rock. The desire for a Machiavellian leader (someone who does the most practical thing possible to get something done, morality be damned) can only work selfishly. True leadership requires a certain set of values and morals that tell you to love and care for your people in the first place. Every step you take away from those values takes you further toward the type of person who is value-less–the type of people we see creeping around our political halls today. They have disregarded many values in the name of practicality and have been successful, but in doing so have proven that they are concerned primarily with their own interests.
I hear people bemoaning this type of leadership as they say, “Look where that got Ned Stark.” Well, the reality is that this type of lifestyle can get you killed, and it often kills these characters at the ends of their stories. But to them, and to a real leader, simply surviving isn’t always the end game. Sure, you’re not so effective when you’re dead, but sacrificing your values to stay alive is usually just some form of cowardice (I don’t mean “make stupid decisions that will obviously get you killed” here). Ned Stark may be dead, but his goals and ethics live on, and they are stronger than ever in his son and many in the north. That’s what leaders like this do: they inspire others to go on without them. They change hearts and minds by leading from the front, and what they build will last far beyond their own lives. That’s the sort of leadership the United States was founded upon.
The type of guy who would jump on a grenade for the people in the same room is the type of leader human beings require. No one will break their backs for their people more than someone like that, and the reality is that they may not always make the most practical choice all the time. However, a person who prizes practicality over ethics isn’t going to understand concepts like freedom and liberty, not like the Bruce Waynes or Jon Snows–because freedom and liberty are not always practical. They’re not always safe.
These new characters, almost flawless but realistically taking the toll for it, represent the deep desire in our culture for such leaders to rise up in the future.
Featured image: Kit Harrington in “Game of Thrones,” courtesy of HBO.