More on Non-Attachment: Heroes, Antiheroes, and Bliss Leaders

| December 2, 2018
Leadership / Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

We’ve already discussed Frank Reagan’s (Tom Selleck) ability to find creative solutions to problems in our post called “The Creative Leader” (March 31, 2017). We saw there that Frank, who plays a New York Police Commissioner on Blue Bloods, was caught between his own tendency not to rock the boat and his wish to address what may be an unjust mandatory retirement policy for older officers. In the episode, called “A Deep Blue Goodbye,” senior officer Chief Travis Jackson (Isaiah Washington) argues that the mandatory retirement policy is a violation of his civil rights, and prompts Frank to imagine walking in the other man’s’ shoes. Frank recognizes that, as commissioner, he is not subject to the regulation. The typically by-the-book Frank is drawn in to Travis’ appeals, and engages in some self-evaluation. Franks recollects that he was educated by Jesuits and that he went from school directly into the Marines, and therefore has a lot of experience following commandments and commands.

Frank neither represses nor or ignores the personal and the emotional as he considers the best course of action to take; instead, he consults these elements of his own subjectivity. In this episode, as in others, he discusses the matter with his father, a former police commissioner, and with his family of law enforcement professionals (the “blue bloods” of the title). Though Frank is in touch with emotion and personal situatedness, he remains professional in Travis’ presence and demonstrates an ability to shift into non-attachment as he processes the matter. Frank shows us that non-attachment is not about notfeeling anything, but that it is a way of reflecting on problems and considering one’s options without being intent on forcing particular outcomes. He eventually decides to explore the matter of changing the forced retirement policy for future cases.

We think most viewers see Frank Reagan as a hero, but not because his life is on the line. Rather, we admire Frank because of the remarkable poise and equanimity with which he responds to each situation. (This is unlike his detective son, Danny Reagan, who often acts out of righteous emotion when he goes after the bad guys.) Though Frank does encounter significant challenges that affect other people’s lives and safety, he himself mostly remains behind the scenes, problem-solving in a state of even-tempered deliberation. Frank’s is a different kind of heroism, perhaps more in line with the sort we’ve been advocating: he understands the scope of human limitations and is often more a target of criticism than appreciation. Frank is a hero because of the noble subjectivity he brings to his professional life.

These days, Frank is a relatively rare breed on television due to the rise of the antihero. The antihero may have good intentions, a determination to make the world a better place, or—as in the case of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Ray Donovan (Liv Schreiber), an urgency to protect family–but is also fraught with psycho-emotional flaws and weaknesses, and/or distorted values. Notably, many television and film antiheroes hold leadership positions in law, medicine, and government. The Sinner’s keenly discerning and compassionate Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) has a dark past that involved setting fire to the family home while his mentally-ill mother was in it, as well as a present-day sex fetish through which he plays out some of his inner pain. The Resident’s senior medical intern Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czuchry) is an admirable zealot for patient rights, yet his aggressive personality means he often flouts hospital rules and mores enough to have his more level-headed nurse practitioner girlfriend Nic (Emily VanCamp) questioning both his professionalism and their relationship. How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and Damages’ Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) are both uncompromising attorneys with pronounced emotional instabilities. Earlier television antiheroes–for example racially insensitive detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on the long-running NYPD Blue–were more startling figures in the 1990s than they are today (though even now, Sipowicz’ struggles to keep stereotypical cultural and racial prejudice out of his investigations remains alarming).

In short, there are more than a few examples of those who periodically go a bit mentally dark. We may find ourselves rooting for these seriously flawed protagonists out of fascination with their strangeness and a sense that they are more complex, and therefore more “real” than a Frank Reagan. And while such characters may well accurately portray the sorts of psychological conditions and deformities that turn up in the human population, most of us just wouldn’t get away with it in our real-world jobs. In the corporate business or academic communities, antihero-style flaws will get you fired. Yet media influences the way in which we think about leadership, so exploring the trend of the antihero and the differences among TV protagonists is productive, if only to help us see how not to be, and to assess what versions of heroism/leadership our professional colleagues might be carrying around. We’ve noted that the commonplace narrative of the traditional hero saving the world (with all the ego and pride that this can entail) is not what we want to imitate, and now we’re saying that the antihero’s dark side is also clearly problematic as a model of leadership.

There is an additional arena in which the world of the antihero lacks verisimilitude: this has to do with the many plots that depict overlapping urgent crises and twists that demand near-impossible fanatical multi-tasking and, in many cases, would simply send any normal human into stress-related illness, if not utter mental breakdown. Chaos ensues on the season premiere episode of The Resident called “Storm Warning” when the Chastain Park Memorial Hospital medical team is plunged into darkness due to a power outage that occurs during a massive storm. Because premature newborn Mabel is already undergoing surgery for a heart deformity, the procedure must be continued with the use of compromised back-up generators. The baby’s father is suffering a seeming stroke (it turns out to be an allergic reaction to a protein bar). In other parts of the hospital, personnel can’t access patient information, and doctors and nurses have to make their best guesses as to who needs attention most. Conrad Hawkins, who in the normal hospital context often dashes from failing patient to failing patient, now finds himself doing battle with the hospital administration when he admits a boy bleeding from a gunshot wound into the overcrowded facility. Everyone soon learns that the power outage has not been caused by the storm, but by a hacker who, apparently, is someone inside the hospital!

Here, as elsewhere, characters face not just a single upheaval per episode, but multiple ordeals, both professional and personal. It used to be, and not so long ago, that plots demanding herculean exertions on the parts of characters were saved for season finales, but not so today: now, each episode aims to outdo the last with high-stakes drama. Conrad Hawkins’ even more current counterpart is hospital CEO Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) in New Amsterdam. Dr. Goodwin moves from medical challenge to challenge while suffering from malignant throat cancer and trying to win back his estranged wife as she struggles with a high risk, life-threatening pregnancy. In sum, the fanatically accomplished, multi-tasking anti-hero/leader teaches us that success requires deep and unrelenting engagement in a supremely taxing, berserk world.

While the polar opposite of non-attachment–the feverish antihero–makes for good drama on television (no wonder cop, legal, and medical shows are so ubiquitous), it does not make for good models of leadership. We call our ideal the bliss hero, or to do away with the word hero altogether we would say the bliss leader.

 With the following brief descriptions of the traditional hero, antihero, and bliss leader in mind, send us a comment that touches upon characters from TV and/or film:

Traditional Hero: According to Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The traditional hero’s journey includes a figurative death and resurrection, and saving-the-world themes are not uncommon.

Antihero: An antihero is a conspicuously flawed protagonist. S/he may take right action, but be compromised by self-interest, ethical/moral blind spots, or personal weaknesses (possibly rooted in a painful past).

Bliss Leader: In addition to a capacity for non-attachment, we refer to the qualities cited in our 4 basic premises:

  1. Everyone is engaged in leadership, because each of us has an impact–positive or negative, small or large–on those we touch. That is, what we say or do “leads” others to impressions, perceptions, feelings, actions that are a direct result of how we are who we are.  Something so small as a cheery “good morning” can lead those who hear it to feel uplifted.
  2. Everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes. Therefore, to pretend to be “strong and confident” (a commonly used leadership quality), is inauthentic, the symptom of a defensive ego.
  3. A good leader knows that she can never know everything and is therefore always making decisions in a state of being “mistaken,” in a state of imperfect or incomplete knowledge. Operating with this self-knowledge, the leader is always expanding to include and appreciate more ways of knowing, being, and feeling, in a never-ending process of improvement.
  4. Leadership is commonly associated with heroism, and heroism with struggle. Instead, it should be associated with self-expansion and good and good-feeling stress (what Hans Selye calls “eu-stress”). These elements align leadership with bliss: bliss enters when we allow ourselves to be dynamic works in process.

2 thoughts on “More on Non-Attachment: Heroes, Antiheroes, and Bliss Leaders

  1. I really enjoyed reading the blog, and it made me think deeply about both the perceptions of decision-making, as well as the decisions outright. ( I was also forced to look up the word verisimilitude.)

    In most situations, people discuss leadership while focusing on the people at the top, while leaders exist at every level within the organization.

    When I think about Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of a secret service agent in the movie, “In the Line of Fire,” this senior-level (and near-retirement age) agent, is clearly an imperfect specimen, willing to break the smaller rules of law and life in order to focus on the most important goal of protecting the President, even if it may cost him his life. He becomes personally embroiled in conflict with the would-be assassin (portrayed by John Malkovich), and he ultimately prevails by taking a bullet meant for the President. He not only did his job, but he also led by example. By your definition, he could be portrayed as the anti-hero.

    This reminds me of the many mid-level managers who provide knowledge, service, and other forms of contributions to the institution, but also provide loyal feedback and an outward-facing alliance with their leaders, even at times when they might disagree with strategy.

    Bliss Leader: I recently saw the movie “Bumblebee,” and I was struck by the main character, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), who basically saved the planet Earth. You wrote about self-expansion, and her character spent the entire movie in this process, gaining courage, engaging wisdom, and learning the lessons gained from employing partnership over pressure—and having fun.

    I have found that I sometimes have to replace “non-attachment” with “objectivity,” not only when presenting the concept to others, but in practical cases, too. While the terms could be considered somewhat interchangeable, I think non-attachment allows me to resonate with the entirety of a situation without taking on all of the emotion and pain sometimes associated with enabling behavior, and objectivity provides an opportunity to put myself in another person’s shoes while holding on to my own perceptions of the situation (and anxiety). Employing a blend of both strategies has been particularly helpful to me when dealing with supercharged situations and desiring to be an authentic and caring individual.

    Thanks for the opportunity to read and comment.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to watch In the Line of Fire again! We hadn’t seen it since it came out in 1993, and it was interesting to immerse ourselves in an earlier version of a movie antihero–earlier than the somewhat more tainted antihero types that we see in movies and on TV these days. Even though the antihero goes as far back as ancient Greece, today’s specimens often seem increasingly blemished. Eastwood is great as the (in villain Mitch Leary/John Malkovich’s words) “sad-eyed, piano-playing drunk” Frank Horrigan, who seeks redemption from his failed effort to save John Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. Frank sets out to purge his demons, and, as you note, succeeds by saving the current President from Leary’s malice.

      The presiding metaphor is “taking the shot,” and it’s of course literal here! Frank throws himself in front of the president to redeem both his manhood and his professionalism. Even the villain recognizes the achievement: “You had the guts, Frank. You took the bullet.” He was wearing a bulletproof vest though, which means he lives to “ride off into the sunset” (actually snuggling at the foot of the Lincoln Monument at the Washington Mall) with the girl. We get traditional closure, rather than a mixed ending (i.e., the demons are actually purged in the end).

      Yes, the point about leaders appearing at all levels of an organization/institution is an important one: “Something so small as a cheery ‘good morning’ can lead those who hear it to feel uplifted” (Premise 1).

      We’ve yet to see Bumblebee, and while it sounds from your description as though Charlie Watson is a neophyte and egalitarian leader, we should note that the stakes of her leadership are about as big as can be, and obviously even bigger than in the case of Frank Horrigan: saving the planet no less, a favorite situation in the hero and superhero genre.

      We do think that objectivity shares qualities with non-attachment, insofar as non-attachment allows one to see less personally and therefore be more aware of elements a bigger picture. One of the important emphases for non-attachment, which arises out of Eastern philosophical practices, is that of release or freedom from suffering (when no particular outcome is insisted upon). So, it captures the kind of subjectivity that a leader can learn to practice for his or her own good.

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