Boring Leadership – “The Corner That Held Them” – Chapter 7

For the first time in this book, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to write.

Which is strange, because in this small chapter, there is everything from debt, lawsuits, and even murders.

Jesse Figg dies in the wintry night, stabbed by what looks to be multiple assailants. His widow can smell rain coming, and is kept at the convent for this strange talent.

It is one of multiple problems that newly appointed Prioress Matilda must face. What makes Matilda so good at her job is actually quite boring. She is able to address deficits at Oby, but not much more than that. She is no good singer, like the late Dame Susanna, and does not have the dignity or cleverness of thought like Dame Isabela. But still, she is the right person at the right time. After the tyranny of Joanna, it is enough to be in the state of comforting boredom.

It shouldn’t feel too dramatically different than, say, Joe Biden. Granted, few people would have offered Biden as their first pick for the 2020 election. His old age caters to the baby boomer vote, but largely he represents a jack of all trades and master of none.

But then again, neither did Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in a time of economic strife much like our own had promised to be the antithesis of Herbert Hoover.

We seem to come back to this idea in the novel, that leadership ability and leadership personality are not to be conflated.

Rosa Parks had the quiet strength to remain on the bus, and was just the sort of person to perform civil disobedience in a way to spark a nation. Martin Luther King Jr. gave that spark a voice.

This dichotomy is discussed in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

In the case of The Corner That Held Them, Prioress Matilda seems best served as a leader of monetary policy. At the end of the chapter, it’s clear she is going to attempt to go after Sir Ralph’s private funds in order to pull Oby further out of debt.

At least the bailiff was murdered in the best time:

…and if the murder had to take place (and all things are in God’s hand) at least it befell at the least inconvenient time of year, when there was nothing much to be done but threshing and mending up harness.

When we read lines like this, we are prone to balking. But a boring leader rationalizes all debts, and is able to find the small mercies. Or at least, Matilda succeeds because she is able to recognize the payoffs embedded in all things.

It’s an ugly trait to speak of human lives in this context. Such was the fascination with Game of Thrones, a book series (and show of course) that took decisions, happenstance, and accident, and turned them always into opportunities. “In the game of thrones you win or you die,” Cersei said. We all know where she ended up on that binary scale…

This kind of leadership, if it falls on a man or woman for long enough, can degrade their relationship to the kindnesses of life. This was the fateful end to King Arthur in The Once and Future King by T.H. White, where peace continued to be a “candle in the wind.”

Reaching the halfway point of the novel, The Corner That Held Them swirls along now with previously referenced stories. Sir Ralph brings up the tale he heard of the fictional Mamillion, and the spire nears completion was fraught with a sordid history, but now is paid off, even if it was a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario. The legacies of Dame Susanna’s voice have now been etched into memory, and the convent has existed long enough to have its own legends and rumors. Just last chapter all sorts of false tales were told about lustful betrayals on the duty of being a nun that would make your hair stand on end.

Is it possible to see the effect of one’s leadership as one is leading? In HBO’s John Adams, he laments that he will be the in between president to Washington’s majesty and Jefferson’s agrarian utopia. It is the work of a modern writer given the power of hindsight to give Adams voice to the fact that many can barely remember who John Adams even was, let alone what he did.

And even if you could be found to be a good leader, on what grounds?

In Matilda’s case, it resides in…accounting.

But most of all she enjoyed finance. Little by little, here by a cautious envelopment and here by a bold stroke, she was pulling Oby out of its insovlency. The work was so congenial that she was glad to think it would go on for a long while yet; for when your feet are once set on the right path you can guide them as you please, even a few steps backward is no more than a prudent measure for getting up your strength to go forward more advantageously a little later.

That is the word if there ever was one: prudence.

Is there still a place for boring leadership in our nation? Those civil servants who seek each day to give us a nation of democratic institutions that can weather the charismatic and relatively useless turnaround of hot air that arrives every four or eight years?

David Foster Wallace attempted to explain the power of the IRS in his novel The Pale King. These were heroes who worked mind-numbingly boring jobs, and who made pennies compared to those they audited. Yet they kept going…why?

It may turn out to be the case that the policy that saves us turns out to be the most unfancy kind. Those banal details Kamala Harris attempted to explain in the final chapter of her autobiography The Truths We Hold.

We’re going to need a better stomach for tedious politics in the 21st century, and a mind more patient for the sorts of measures that leaders like Prioress Matilda luxuriate in.

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