Leadership is a tricky bag. It’s best defined in the same ways as pornography and art, an “I know it when I see it” kind of nebulous, shifting concept. Well, perhaps it’s well-defined along those terms; its best definition stems from its nonexistence, leadership evidenced by the complete lack thereof. Where leadership is most apparent is where there simply is none, as a rudderless ship lazily drifts toward fates outside its control.
Just ask the New York Knicks, who’ve been victims of a causal tide for most of the 2013-14 season. Whether or not it’s a large problem among a sea of never-ending quandaries, there seems to be a significant leadership void for the Knicks. And Carmelo Anthony has some choice words on the matter:
“I think it’s too much being put on who’s a leader and who’s not the leader,” Anthony said after practice Tuesday. “I’m a leader of this team. I know that and everybody else knows that. I’ll lead in my own way. Kenyon Martin might lead in his way. Everybody is a leader. As a leader of this team, I need other guys to help me lead. That’s just the way it’s got to be.”
It’s nearly nirvana, the way Anthony sways from “I’m a leader” to “Everybody is a leader.” If the latter is true, so too is the former, of course — you can draw a Venn diagram to confirm it for yourself — but it’s entirely circular logic, the worst, least actionable kind of koan. If everyone is a leader, and you’re a leader, is anyone really a leader?
Fortunately, the great experiments of the 19th century already tinkered with this same kind of grand thought experiment. As Transcendentalism swept the United State in the early 1800s, many turned to a new type of community, places of true communal living that the inhabitants hoped would be utopia. One of the well-known of these nominal utopias was Brook Farm, a nearly 200-acre plot just outside of Boston. There, George Ripley, a Utopian minister, and his wife Sophia hoped to lead a new way of living.
Yet they weren’t really leaders. Brook Farm originated as a joint stock company; everyone who lived there shared in the fruits of the labor, but everyone also had to take on an equal share of the labor. Even the children had to carry their own weight — or have it carried for them — as they were charged for their education. Even though there were rules to life at Brook Farm, there was no real leader; just as with the New York Knicks, everybody was a leader, capable of making their own decisions as well as decisions for the greater community. A person could choose their occupation, regardless of the needs of the many, though ostensibly the goal of Brook Farm was the betterment of all of its inhabitants. Labor was seen more or less as a necessity of living, not an end in and of itself. The people of Brook Farm hoped that through the involvement of all — through the leadership of all — the labor would be done in its due course, and there would in turn be plenty of time for leisure and loftier pursuits.
It failed miserably. Founded in 1841, Brook Farm was completely dissolved by 1847; in 1844, the writing was on the wall, as the community restructured around a related but different set of ideals. The pursuit of utopia through true democracy, where every person was equal and had an equal say in the direction of the community, led to financial stagnation. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the more outspoken critics of Transcendentalism, derived much of what he knew of the movement from Brook Farm; as a founding member, he was in prime position to see just how poorly the project went, giving him inspiration for The Blithedale Romance, one of his first novels.
It’s too strong an assertion to say that a community — or a team — absolutely needs a leader, but no collective can prosper without leadership. It’s a lesson the Knicks are learning the hard way, among a cornucopia of other ailments. Perhaps Carmelo Anthony is leading the best (the only) way that he knows how, by taking care of what he sees as his purview and hoping that his teammates will pick up the other issues of which he is unsure.
“Everybody leads in their own way,” Anthony said. “It’s not no one guy who is saying that we have to do this or we have to do that. Everybody has an open forum. If they see something that’s going on, if they have an opinion, then it’s an open forum to say what they feel, and everybody has to adjust to that and see how we can figure it out from there.”
A grand idea, in theory, Melo. Yet its practice is a tortured fate, and one which the New York Knicks are struggling mightily to escape.