A Leopard Cannot Change His Spots

I am republishing this for the (possible) benefit of the 10th grade class, so please don’t be too puzzled by the very dated football playoff reference from January 2013, when I originally published it.

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It’s playoff time in the NFL, and many talking heads now say that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has “made the leap” by engineering a late game comeback against the Seahawks this past Sunday.  Having won the “big game,” Ryan can now join the club of “clutch” quarterbacks.

But if Matt Bryant had missed the field goal, we would be having a different conversation, one that focused on Ryan’s crucial 4th quarter interception that helped lead to a Seahawks comeback.  I agree with Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  A lot depends on context.  After the Falcons lost to the 49ers, thanks in part to a Matt Ryan fumble, Barnwell wrote amusing follow-up here.

What is the stuff of leadership?

Any visitor to a library can get stuffed to the gills with theories of leadership, and while I admit to judging these books by their covers, I don’t think I buy any particular “theory” of leadership.

Of course all good leaders demonstrate the same basic characteristics.  They show firmness at the right time, or flexibility at the right time, or the willingness to listen and adapt at the right time, or to maintain the strength of their convictions at the right time, and so on, and so on.  But anyone can write this without any special talent.  Add to that, much leadership theory presupposes that people can fundamentally change who they are, that “type B” leaders can become “type A” leaders whenever the situation arises.  I doubt this happens much.  The same firmness and clarity of vision from Winston Churchill that helped save Europe in W.W. II also led him to be nearly all wrong on the Indian question throughout the 1930’s.

Bernard Bailyn’s book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson demonstrates that people who might be great leaders in certain circumstances are utter failures in others.

Bailyn begins his book by revisiting the worst of the riots over the Stamp Act of 1765.  A variety of British officials received threats and intimidation, but none received the level of concentrated violence as Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of Massachussets and also the Supreme Court justice.  Looters ransacked his house methodically for three days straight, taking several thousand dollars in cash and valuables, while causing another few thousand dollars damage to his house.

With this in mind, we would naturally make many assumptions about the man.  He probably gave loud and hearty support to the Stamp Act.   He probably displayed a haughty character.  Maybe he was even not native to the land, but a British import.  Probably he lived ostentatiously and lorded it over his fellow men.

But nearly all of our natural assumptions about him would be wrong.  His portrait reveals a man of some reserve with the pleasant “Smile of Reason” the Enlightenment philosophes had down pat.   His house was nice, but not over the top.  He was born and bred in the colonies, and even wrote what is considered to be the best contemporary history of the Massachusetts  Colony.  He never published it. He commented to a few friends that it had too many flaws.

Thomas Hutchinson

The Hutchinson HouseAdd to that, he opposed the Stamp Act!  As Chief Justice he commented that he thought the Stamp Act bad policy and sure to fail.  He earnestly hoped that the British would see reason and cease their plans for the doomed tax.

But he, more than any other, received the laser-like focus of wrath from the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams, along with James Otis, vilified him in print year after year, and Hutchinson, perhaps totally flummoxed, never seems to have responded in kind.  How did this happen?  Why did such a mild-mannered man as Hutchinson cause so much anger and resentment?

John Adams rarely passed up an opportunity to call Hutchinson a “courtier” — someone of no account who fawned his way to the top of society.  True, the marriages within his family aided his cause, but this form of social climbing was hardly unknown even in the colonies, and certainly not in England.  For what it’s worth, Hutchinson appeared to have a very good marriage, and he grieved long and hard for his wife who died in childbirth.

Others point to the fact that in 1765 Hutchinson held two offices, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice, and thus ran afoul of the emerging doctrine of the separation of powers that would make itself manifest in the Constitution.  But Hutchinson never sought a position on the court.  The governor nominated him, and he initially refused, claiming that he “had not the necessary legal mind” for the job.  He took it only reluctantly after repeated entreaties from the governor himself.

But Bailyn holds that the main cause of Hutchinson’s singular failure lie in his personality.  His love of careful compromise, his lifelong aversion to stirring the pot unnecessarily, made him singularly unsuited to leadership in a revolutionary age.  Indeed, had Hutchinson held power in England, we might very well be reading about how his careful, compromising leadership helped King George avoid war with the colonies.  But in America, that shoe did not fit.

We get an idea of the temper of the times when colonists criticized Hutchinson not for being for the Stamp Act, but for being against it for the wrong reasons.  Where people like Adams and Otis saw deep-seated principle at stake, Hutchinson saw misguided policy, and this attitude led to Hutchinson’s most unfortunate and damaging mistake.  Bostonians drew up  an eloquent and passionate objection to the Stamp Act to send to Parliament, but Hutchinson put on the brakes.  He argued, tinkered and pleaded for a month to change much of the tone and some of the substance of their entreaty, while still sharing their objections to the tax.  In the interval, other colonies gained fame and glory by publishing their own heated objections, making Boston look weak and tepid.  Between their first headstrong and final lukewarm drafts, England settled their minds and began the road to enforcing the Act.

Boston was not amused.  They vented all their considerable anger directly at Hutchinson.  Many of them suspected him (erroneously) of merely stalling for time and not really being against the Act at all.

While in the end I give the slight nod to the revolutionaries on the question of their relationship to England, I cannot say that Hutchinson was entirely wrong.  If the revolution had never happened, who’s to say that the colonies would not in time have developed their essential independence along the lines of Canada? Such a smooth, uneventful and gradual transition would have tickled Hutchinson pink.

What Hutchinson never saw, however, was how his own mindset and personality had been shaped by a revolution 75-100 years prior — the intellectual paradigm shift known as the Enlightenment.   All that calm reasonableness would not have fit within the late 16th century any more than it did in late 18th century North America.

Alas for Thomas Hutchinson, a good and decent man, but one decidedly not of his time — a leopard who could not change his spots.

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