It has been suggested to me that I should write a post on leadership. I cannot help but feel, however, after my grand total of three months in a position of authority, that I don't yet have the knowledge and experience necessary to say much about leadership. But I do know a lot about The Lord of the Rings, so I will share some of what that story has taught me about leadership.
The Rings of Power
"It began with the forging of the Great Rings... For within these Rings was bound the strength and the will to govern over each race."
Tolkien was very insistent that his writings were not allegorical. What he would allow, however, was that the tales were mythological – and deliberately so. Being mythological, they necessarily deal with universal themes, in ways applicable to 'ordinary' life. He also said that the different races of Middle-Earth – most especially the Elves – represent different aspects or potentialities of the human race. With this in mind, we can reflect how the Rings of Power embody different aspects of power and authority.
The One Ring, of course, embodies the "will to dominate all life." In Tolkien's thought, the great evil of 'Magic', as opposed to the 'Art' of the Elves, is that it is about bending people or things to one's will. This is one way in which leadership can be exercised. So it is significant, of course, that this Ring has a twisting and corrupting influence upon the one who bears it.
Another way, however, can be seen in the Three Rings – the Elven Rings untouched by Sauron in their making. The power of these rings is in preserving, healing, and strengthening. Such is the true purpose of leadership.
Tolkien, therefore, allows us to see in distinction the two divergent paths that those in power can take. By doing so, he sketches out the perennial hope that power can be wielded in a pure and noble manner, such as we see in the Elven Rings. That turns out, however, to be a vain hope: not only does the existence of the One Ring provide a constant threat, and at times a temptation, to the bearers of the Three; but the destruction of that One Ring means that the power of the Three also fails. All of which nicely illustrates that the 'good power' and 'bad power' cannot in reality be separated, for it is not the power itself which is good or bad, but the use to which it is put.
What, then, can I learn from the example of the Ring-bearers? For as I see it, I too am a Ring-bearer.
Let's look first at the bearers of the Three – namely, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf (this may be a surprise to those who have only seen the films, which reveal the Ring of Galadriel alone). Elrond and Galadriel use their Rings – Vilya and Nenya, respectively – to protect and nurture their realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien. Gandalf, however, rules no place, and uses his Ring, Narya, in his wandering mission of encouraging, strengthening, and guiding the Free Peoples' resistance to Sauron. Gandalf's example is thus more suitable for a Franciscan, because he never takes lasting authority in any place, and has no claim over anyone except those who freely choose to follow his lead.
It is notable that all three of them keep their Rings secret – the threat of Sauron's dominating power means that it is better to keep their own power hidden. And the lesson I draw from this is that even benevolent authority does well to bear itself modestly, or almost hide itself altogether (the 'Messianic Secret' comes to mind here).
Frodo, as the bearer of the One Ring, demonstrates how to handle the corrupting and malign side of power. He exercises true leadership in two ways: firstly, by simply refraining from the use of the Ring; and secondly, by preventing others from using it. For it is part of the service that authority renders, that it prevents power from being wielded to the hurt of others. Very often, it is better that power not be used at all, than it be used in the wrong way. It is an essential part of leadership to sometimes say "No".
A true leader, therefore, restrains and contains the destructive side of authority. But, as in the case of Frodo, this task wears him down – the ever-present temptation to use his power to dominate, to bend others to his will, cannot be humanly (or hobbitly) resisted. So the ultimate mission of the Ring-bearer is to cast away and destroy this corrupting aspect of power. As I noted above, however, this means doing away with power altogether...
So the final example of leadership is Aragorn, who renounces the chance to take and use the One Ring. This enables him to go forward and become a great leader, inspiring rather than forcing others, and to return to Gondor as its king. The destruction of the Ring means that the great temptation to bend others to his will is no longer there, but it also means that the power of the Elven Rings is gone. So the final lesson of The Lord of the Rings seems to be that leadership in the Age of Men can only properly be exercised without recourse to extraneous sources of power.
The Hand of Providence
A few other random lessons that I've gathered from Tolkien's great work may be quickly shared.
"This task was appointed to you, Frodo, and if you do not find a way, no-one will." These words of Galadriel are a good example of the 'divine passive' in The Lord of the Rings. Another example is when Gandalf tells Frodo that he 'was meant' to have the Ring. Who meant him to have, or who appointed the task to him, is left unsaid; but of course Tolkien is implicitly referring to God, Who is guiding the course of events. And in both cases I have mentioned, the further implication is that He knows what He is doing, and therefore Frodo should not doubt that success is possible. So I too can trust in God, that my appointment to this task is no mistake, and that I am under His care.
"You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo: to bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." However much others may help me in my role of leadership, in the end the buck stops with me. No-one can bear that responsibility for me.
That said, although others can't carry the burden for me, they can carry me.
Finally, from Bilbo I learn the lesson of giving up the power when the time comes: when he left Bag End to Frodo, the time had come for him to leave the Ring to him as well. The fact that he gave it up freely, unlike most other bearers of the Ring, is very important. When my time comes, I hope I can do the same, and so live happily ever after, to the end of my days.