John Keegan, the great military historian, has passed away at age 78.

That NYT obituary I linked gives some sense of the way his writing could be simultaneously magisterial and (/therefore) strenuous, both insightful and frustrating. I am just about the opposite of an infantryman… but then again Keegan himself never served in the military. So I’d like to pick out the idea which gives The Mask of Command, his study of military leadership, its title, and note its countercultural nature.

Keegan proposes that leadership requires theatricality:

Heroic leadership–any leadership–is, like priesthood, statesmanship, even genius, a matter of externals almost as much as of internalities. The exceptional are both shown to and hidden from the mass of humankind, revealed by artifice, presented by theatre. The theatrical impulse will be strong in the successful politician, teacher, entrepreneur, athlete, or divine, and will be both expected and reinforced by the audiences to which they perform.

This is the opposite of the modern cult of authenticity. “Revealed by artifice” is a concept we can barely even articulate now. The idea that one’s proper relationship to others could involve masking one’s deepest inner self rather than revealing (or, as often happens, projecting) it sounds, to the contemporary-casual ear, dishonest and insincere.

Keegan notes that you can’t wear someone else’s mask. Individuality and self-knowledge are part of the kind of leadership he describes. But the mask often requires putting one’s own preferences and quirks aside for the sake of a group or a goal: becoming changed by the needs of others.

This is not the only possible model of leadership, although more “authentic” and vulnerable styles tend to work only in small groups. St. Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship depicts the monk as a leader. Aelred emphasizes the need for deep and humbling honesty before one’s friends–“friend” is the term he uses, although in the dialogue, it’s pretty obvious that these friends are not all equals. The other monks look up to him as an authority and even jockey for position with him. He must exercise personal leadership not only to guide their spiritual lives (and be guided by them) but to manage their clashing personalities. He has what we might call a wounded heart of command, rather than a mask. But he is also only trying to lead a handful of people. Moreover, for Aelred all personal trials point ultimately to Christ; he doesn’t get stuck in endless self-examinations and self-revelations. Without those two facts I doubt his style of leadership would work at all.

At any rate, I just wanted to muse a bit on Keegan’s insight here. The mask of command exerts pressure on the leader as well as those he leads; it challenges him and pushes him to go further than he might otherwise. It’s an ideal he strives to live up to. It’s a simplification, a cartoon, but that makes it easier to see from a distance. Leadership, because it must imagine the world as it is not, requires exaggeration of some features and suppression of others. That distortion is the mask.