By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.
“It is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness.” Henri Nouwen
The notion of the “unbroken leader” is a dangerous self-affirming myth. All things break! Technologies fail, economies collapse, relationships fracture, and physical bodies deteriorate. What is true, is that the bent and broken can be refined – not merely repaired – but actually refashioned, cast anew, and made better. This is the task of authentic leadership, and, coincidentally, the most valuable message of the film Unbroken.Notwithstanding popular opinion, Unbroken is not the chronicle of heroic self-preservation. On the contrary, Angelina Jolie’s directorial film debut portrays a life of intensified brokenness. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling novel, the movie’s focus is much more than the WWII captor-prisoner experiences of the U.S. Air Force Lieutenant and Olympian Louis Zamperini. While most commentaries of the popular film mistakenly interpret Zamperini’s ability to overcome ever-increasing stretches of adversity as examples of his ability to remain “unbroken,” such crude elucidations fall victim to obsolete opinions of leadership that reinforce mythological notions of charismatic individuals whose pantheon-like dexterities produce a concentration of Homeric exploits.Conversely, when viewed through the lens of ancient Greek cosmology, which defines reality in terms of the four basic elements, quadruplicities or modalities of earth (γῆ), water (ὕδωρ), wind (ἀήρ), and fire (πῦρ), Unbroken actually provides a legitimate framework for helping leaders overcome the permanent consequences of physical, emotional, cognitive, and professional fragmentation. By honestly assessing their current level(s) of brokenness according to this model, leaders can actually sharpen the fitness of their respective vocational pursuits in a more comprehensive fashion.
According to ancient Greek thinking, life is best lived holistically. Unlike contemporary society’s proclivity towards compartmentalization, the philosophers of the past firmly advocated that a healthy lifestyle involved the synergy of air, water, earth, and fire. The authentic human being was someone who was capable of simultaneous regulation, and not the specialization of one at the expense of the other three foundational elements of life. Consequently, the private-professional, secular-religious, and temporal-eternal divides so prevalent today were deemed, at best, nonsensical, and at worse, lethal!
As a result of his study of this ancient philosophical alchemy, the founder of modern-day psychology, Carl Jung, developed the notion of the four basic archetypes of personality, namely intuition, sensation, cognition, and emotion. The four personality variables of the Meyers-Briggs, Keirsey, and the DDLI tests are examples of more recent developments of this fusion of Hellenistic philosophy and Jungian psychology. All models insist that the complex world in which we live requires leaders to think organically.
The following table outlines four (4) prevalent leadership styles and the valuable lessons that can be drawn from a careful viewing of the film Unbroken. While each mode of leadership provides its respective value, it is only when each is fortified by the other three, that they form a holistic framework whereby leaders can effectively energize their respective institutions in a more balanced, systemic fashion.
Holistic Leadership Framework
A careful review of the four primary episodes of brokenness in Angelina Jolie’s film provides a valuable backdrop for briefly discussing the nature of the aforementioned leadership perspectives.The Technology LeaderThe first (1st) episode of fragmentation portrayed in Unbroken occurs in the air and represent the dangers associated with the impulse of wind-based leadership. While on a search and rescue mission, in an enfeebled B-24 bomber that had previously been used for spare parts, lieutenant Zamperini is confronted with successive incidents of avionic failures. The scene is saturated with futile attempts to repair the plane’s increasing technological malfunctions. Unfortunately, after both of the aircraft’s left engines fail, the squadron is forced to nosedive into the Pacific Ocean. Only Louis, the pilot, and one other of the eleven crewmembers survive.
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The air episode can effortlessly be interpreted as a warning to leaders against acquiring an over-reliant attitude towards their technological capacities. While vital to the successful advance of an institution’s mission, relevant technologies should never be understood as the primary vitality of efficiency, empowerment, and success. Unfortunately, in search of organizational reprieve, many leaders succumb to the ever-illusive pursuit of the new, innovative, and hi-tech. In the end, by exclusively challenging the “winds” of their respective contexts with the continued implementation of scientific advances, much more than budgets are apt to crash!
The Knowledge Leader
The second (2nd) depiction of fragmentation portrayed in Unbroken occurs in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean wherein Zamperini’s extensive knowledge of Boy Scout survival training are employed to help surmount the challenges. Understandably, when his parents learned of their son’s precarious predicament, Louis’ father speculated that as long as his son “had a pocketknife” he would survive. Unfortunately a pocketknife was not included in the raft’s emergency equipment. However, thanks to the young lieutenant’s resourceful ability to improvise, tie knots, fish, collect rainwater, and estimate their raft’s heading according to celestial positions, the ragtag crew was able to survive a record 47 days at sea.
In the end, however, health-craft, Boy Scout survival skills, and nautical knowledge, were not enough to tame the relentless dangers of the sea. On the 30th day, after gently pushing the lifeless body of the last crewmember out to sea, Zamperini’s here-to-for, indefatigable spirit was broken. “I vow,” he prayed, “that if God bring us home alive, I will serve Him forever!” Fortunately, having drifted some 2,000 miles since the crash, Louis’s prayer was answered when the two half-dead airmen were rescued by a small Japanese cruiser.
The moral of the incident is obvious. Knowledge-based leadership is not inexhaustible, as it relies on intelligence, and its corollary theories, skills and techniques, to confront complexities. In sharp contrast to the air/wind-driven leadership of technology, water-based leaders rely on the resourceful power of knowledge to overcome impending hurdles. As with the other three elements, however, the knowledge leader can lose balance when information, data, and skill are allowed to fragment a more comprehensive understanding of their identity, role, and influence.
The Charismatic Leader
The third (3rd) example of “brokenness” in the film is depicted in the unforgiving character of the physical earth. After a lengthy review of Zamperini’s miseries at sea, viewers are presented the stark realities of land, symbolized by the harsh living conditions of the Japanese war camps. In addition to the routine cruelties of abuse, neglect, and malnutrition, the celebrated international Olympian became the target of brutal beatings, starvation, and psychological torments.
Jealous of his prisoner’s world-renowned athletic achievements, Watanabe, a particularly cruel Japanese corporal surnamed “The Bird,” repeatedly forced Zamperini to endure vicious forms of torture for more than two years. In one poignant scene, “The Bird” forces a weak and starved Zamperini to run a footrace against a more vigorous Japanese competitor. After stumbling face-first into a muddy ditch, Zamperini’s frailty and failure is mocked by the guards.
Unfamiliar with the agony of athletic defeat, Zamperini was most certainly demoralized to lose a footrace to an amateur contender. More than any other experience during his captivity, this was unquestionably one of his most agonizing moments of brokenness but perhaps the greatest opportunity for self-realization! When technologies fail and knowledge-based solution diminish, most charismatic-based leaders unfortunately default to the promise of their talent and abilities to help them successfully compete. As with all other temporal elements, however, albeit stout the robustness of a leader’s innate gifts, charismatic abilities are unsustainable, and will, one day, lose their prior influence and potency.
The Resource Leader
The final example of fragmentation depicted in Unbroken illustrates the fourth component of ancient Greek cosmology, namely the element of fire. After spending two difficult years in a prison near Tokyo, Zamperini is transferred to the Naoetsu slave camp where he and other inmates are forced to load military barges. Unfortunately, Watanabe is once again the Japanese officer in charge of the vast human machine of prisoners carrying coal on their backs – the very resource that, ironically, fuels the fire of war!
Tragically, many leaders impose similar slaveries unto themselves and their institutions. Finances, they believe, is what fuels the furnace of their ingenuities. While extremely important, budgets, financial portfolios, and human capital should never become the primary drivers of an organization’s grand aspirations. On the contrary, the film-screen image of Zamperini’s soot-darkened face, furrowed by the arduous mining of coal, is an apt reminder to all leaders to vigilantly refrain from over-feeding the fire of resource acquisition. To do so, is to actually confine an institution’s mission and vision to the most malevolent of prison camps.
It is here important to note that ancient Greek philosophers debated which of the four cosmological “roots” was the primordial element from which everything else was made. Aristotle was the first to suggest that “aether” was the embryonic modality perceived in the heavenly regions above the terrestrial sphere. The scholars of the Middle Ages believed that “aether” existed above the sphere of fire, and of which the human soul was made. Apart from its classical roots, this fifth “spiritual” element, the quintessence, was also identified by the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions.
The concept of “aetherial” leadership is powerfully illustrated in Unbroken’s most iconic scene. A soot faced-covered Zamperini is forced by “The Bird” to lift and hold a heavy wooden beam over his head while a Japanese guard waits to shoot and kill him when he collapses under its weight. Physically exhausted, injured, and emotionally weak, Zamperini successfully lifts the beam above his head. However, despite his emotional determination, and the encouragement of his fellow prisoners, the entire camp realizes that Zamperini will inevitably be shot when his physical strength collapses under the weight of the timber.
Reminiscent of the crucifixion of Christ, Louis lifts and remarkably maintains the wood above his head against a canvas of American soldiers covered head to toe in coal dust, their darkened bodies silhouetted on the Japanese landscape. While healthy men would have certainly labored to maintain the posture for more than a few minutes, the malnourished Zamperini, defied his oppressor by holding the position for more than half an hour. Louis would later recall, “Something was happening inside of me!”
Utterly humiliated by Zamperini’s apparent stamina, an angered Watanabe beat his nemesis mercilessly. As prisoners and guards watched the spectacle in astonishment, it was “The Bird,” not Zamperini, that finally collapses in the mud – broken!
It is this writer’s opinion that Louis’ ability to lift and hold the heavy wooden beam above his head was not the result of his own strength and fortitude. On the contrary, a more intimate viewing of the scene reveals an optional interpretation. Zamperini was hanging from – not holding up – the wood. It was the Cross Beam itself that was actually holding him upright!
It is significant that the word “broken” routinely appears throughout the pages of Holy Scripture, intertwining the concepts of strength and brokenness. In his letter to the Christian community in Corinth, for example, Saint Paul asserts that strength is most prominently evidenced in/through weakness (2 Corinthians). In this most revered narrative of self-disclosure, Paul confesses that the realization of this truth was the direct result of his own experience of physical brokenness.
God allows weakness in the life of leaders to protect them from pride and, thereby, refine their perspectives, abilities, and faith. Leaders break so that they might develop a new kind of strength, a forte that is spiritual, “aetherial,” and is “perfected in weakness.” In fact, King David, the most broken of Old Testament kings warned other leaders that God is not interested in “burnt offerings,” “sacrifices,” or other “works” of atonement. What God truly desires, the psalmist insists, “is a broken spirit, and a broken and contrite heart.” This, we are told, is what God, “will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
In the final analysis, brokenness and not Herculean métier is the fire that undergirds the altruistic capacities of the authentic leader. The film Unbroken, presents such a portrait of a leader – not so much broken as “broken-in.” The quintessence that empowers the ardor of such individuals is not a derivative of technology, knowledge, charism, or any other temporal resource. It is spiritual – the very Wood upon which all strength hangs – emanating from a higher modality of existence, and, as such, can never be broken!
The Unbroken Leader
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