Defined by Absence


“Go back to the definition,” my mom said to me.

That probably doesn’t sound like a typical instruction from a mother to her child, so here is the context. My mom was not only a high-school math teacher, but also a math education professor. She inspired generations of engineers, doctors, scientists, financial whizzes, and, of course, math teachers while I just tolerated math. So, you would think I was one of the luckiest kids in the world to have a math expert at my disposal. Nope. When I got stuck, my mom would send me back to the definition, and from there, we would solve the problem together.

Mother knows best, they say. So, as an adult, I continue to apply my mom’s logical approach to problem solving to other bigger questions in life. Recently, the question has been “What makes a leader?” As the U.S. presidential election draws near, I can’t avoid the news on the political campaigns these days. Even though I tolerate politics, as I did math, I will soon have to cast my vote and may as well start thinking about the candidate whom I will support as my future leader.

Do we know what leaders are? On the surface, we seem to since we talk about them all the time. We want leaders. We scrutinize them. Many of us aspire to be one of them, and many of us get to vote for those with the aspirations. Some of us even study them or train others to be them. But with all these talks and studies, do we really know the leadership qualities that define leaders?

I don’t think we know. In a recent New Yorker article “Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the Leadership Industry Rules”, Joshua Rothman quoted Barbara Kellerman, a founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, who said, “[W]e don’t have much better an idea of how to grow good leaders, or of how to stop or at least slow bad leaders, than we did a hundred or even a thousand years ago.” Do I have a definition to go back to?

Since all the media channels seem to be flooding our senses with stories of candidates who want to be our next leader, I turn to the media for the definition of “leader”, or at least inspirations for the definition. Interestingly, instead of affirmative definitions of “leader” like a list of the candidates’ qualities, values or believes, I often run into headlines like these:

  • [Candidate A] is more dangerous than [Candidate B]
  • The best that can be said of [Candidate A] is that he is a worse [Candidate B]
  • I was wrong: President [A] would be way scarier than President [B]
  • He’s difficult. He’s too narrow. … But… he’s not [Candidate B].

In these real examples, we define a leadership candidate not as who they are or what they represent, but as who they are not or what they do not represent. Is my mom’s logical approach starting to fail here? If a² + b² = c²  then you can always solve for c, if you are given a and b. But to say, if a² + b² ≠ c² , then c can be a lot of numbers for given a and b. To define something as “not something else” can be confusing and not helpful for problem solving. (Did I lose you at the Pythagorean Theorem? My mom almost lost me, too.)

Maybe leadership is not something we could comprehend with logics. Maybe the definition of the word “leader” is too abstract, too complex or too intimate for our human mind to process and give one complete yet concise definition. So, I wonder if by defining something as what it is not (vs. as what it is) our mind might have a chance at understanding and articulating a concept beyond its logical capacity.

I never thought I would give a shot at trying to define something as the absence or the negation of something else until I lost a mentor. Not only was my mentor a kind human being, she was a visionary and a leader for many who knew her.

When people talk about my mentor, you hear words like these: a good listener; fully present; generous; calm; wise; a big-picture thinker; comfortable with tension; made connections; a communicator; a mentor; a champion; an advocate; passion; openness; inviting; fearless; trust; risk taking; quiet command; cared about people; met you where you were and expected you to be the best you could be. The list goes on and on.

So, does the list make up the definition of “leader”? I thought about it, and I don’t think it does, at least not completely. I collect these words from stories that others have shared. Each story includes one of these words, but no stories include them all. Even if we combine all the individual stories into one, the collective story still doesn’t tell a complete picture of a leader because, despite the long list of leadership words, the list is not exhaustive. The collective story only makes the definition of leadership more complete, but never whole.

During this period of reflection, I stumbled upon Would You Rather… by John Burningham, a book about a young boy with curly hair and a grayish green overall. The book has nothing to do with loss, grief or leadership, but the way the story is told ended up helping me process the unexpected leadership void in my life. Each section of the book starts with the phrase, “Would you rather…” followed by a few scenarios.

Sometimes, the scenarios are inspirational. “Would you rather have … supper in a castle … breakfast in a balloon … or tea on the river?”

But right on the next page, the scenarios go abysmal. “Would you rather be made to … eat spider stew … taste slug dumplings … chew mashed worms … or drink a snail shake?”



Sometimes, the scenarios are about choices among potential fun. “Would you rather … tickle a monkey … read to a koala … box with a cat … skate with a dog … ride on a pig … or dance with a goat?”

And sometimes, they are about choices among potential disasters. “Would you rather be chased by … a crab … a bull … a lion … or wolves?”

A few scenarios come close to my professional context. “Would you rather … jump in the nettles for five dollars … swallow a dead frog for twenty dollars … or stay all night in a creepy house for fifty dollars?” These scenarios reminds me of my own grumble, “You don’t pay me enough to do that!” when I face unpleasant challenges at work. I definitely said that to my mentor – sometimes in jest and many times not – before I had to roll up my sleeves and swallow a figurative dead frog that she had served me.

What hit home for me is the scenario, “Would you rather be … pulled through the mud by a dog?” I once helped my mentor triage a crisis and actually described many of my days during that time as being pulled through the mud. The first time I saw the scenario in Would You Rather…, the metaphor became real.

The thing is, it was not all bad. Under her leadership, I was made to eat spider stew and drink a snail shake, but I also had my supper in a castle, breakfast in a balloon, tea on a river. There were dubious moments when I feared that I might be chased by wolves (and I was), but I was also excited that I might get to read to a koala or dance with a goat (not all the time, but it happened). Under her leadership, it was not always pleasant, but I always got to experience and learn. Without her, gone were those scenarios: the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the questionable.

Having a leader means having the possibilities. What possibilities bring doesn’t necessarily make us feel good or comfortable, but having possibilities does. Having possibilities leaves us room for options, hopes and dreams for something better. It took the absence of a leader close to my personal life to realize what a leader might mean. That might have been my mentor’s last piece of wisdom for me.

And that’s how I came to think of – or more accurately, feel – the definition of “leader” – through its absence. That approach may not tell me much about what makes a leader, but I may be closer to comprehending it. While my mom’s logical approach to problem solving has helped me come this far in my life (and I admit that the Pythagorean Theorem helped me once at a hardware store), there are other important things in life that take more than the logical mind to comprehend. For those, imagining our life without them may help us better understand what they are.