A Call to Leadership

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I trust my friend, Mikey, for all things writing-related and recalled his deep admiration for David Foster Wallace when “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” was sitting by a trash receptacle when Pepperdine students moved out in May. So I snagged it. Mikey was right, of course. Wallace was a genius.¹

(Note: If you accidentally left your copy of “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” by David Foster Wallace by a trash receptacle last May, I lacked the requisite intent to be charged with larceny.)²

For instance of said genius, check out this magnificent description of a New York Times journalist Wallace penned from the McCain 2000 presidential campaign trail in “Up Simba” (an article he wrote for Rolling Stone): “…a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.”

I read that last phrase a hundred times it is so awesome.

So, I was called on to fill-in preach at church this past Sunday morning, which I am reluctant to do anymore but did for some reason this time, and that afternoon I was finishing “Up Simba” when I stumbled across a paragraph that perfectly illustrated the point of my entire sermon. The sermon offered the distinction between self-interest and true love of others as the language of my faith, but Wallace described the same dichotomy as salesmanship versus leadership. So, you take your pick today—politics, religion, or leadership—and reach your own conclusions. Here is Wallace:

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful . . . although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough—like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say—it’s only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a sh*t about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

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¹ I happily discovered when about two-thirds of the way through the book that there is a movie out about Wallace right now called “End of the Tour.” So I had to see that, too. It is a touching film about this talented, fascinating, tragic life that I highly recommend.

² Wallace used lots of footnotes.  I am so easily influenced.

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