When he agreed to create a definitive dictionary of the English language, Dr. Samuel Johnson was taking on a Herculean task. The century before, the French Academy had embarked on a similar project, which turned out to require forty scholars fifty-five years to complete. Johnson’s resulting masterpiece, the Oxford English Dictionary, was completed by Johnson and six clerks in only eight years – although Johnson used an early form of crowd-sourcing as evidenced in Simon Winchester’s amazing book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Everything about Johnson’s life was a struggle. He was was brilliant but his family’s lack of wealth hindered his education. He probably suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, was permanently blind in one eye, and as a result of both small-pox and a botched surgery had a deeply scarred face. His biographer Boswell said that “everything about his character and manners was forcible and violent”.
But while he was a giant of history and an intellectual giant of his day, he constantly tended to his many faults and overweaning pride. It was a short moment late in his life that demonstrates the result of his path toward greater wisdom. From David Brooks’ excellent book The Road to Character, this anecdote:
“When he was an old man he recalled an episode in his youth. His father had asked him to man the family bookstall in the market square of a town called Uttoxeter. Johnson, feeling superior to his father, had refused. Now elderly, feeling the lingering shame, he made a special trip to the market square of Uttoxeter and stood on the spot where his father’s stall had been. As he later recalled: ‘Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain…In contrition I stood, and I hope that the penance was expiatory'”
There is sadness, beauty, and wisdom in this story. Who among us cannot look back at a younger version of ourself and cringe at something we said?
I think the lesson here for leaders is to be philosophical when they encounter someone who hasn’t fully matured yet, whose ego is still in need of victories. Note that we can’t know how Johnson’s father reacted to this insubordination from his son. He was no doubt irritated, but perhaps he too had done something similar to his own father. Perhaps he knew that his son didn’t lack love, but lacked maturity.
As I wrote in this post, one of the hallmarks of good leaders (and good parents) is to know which battles to fight and which ones to ignore. The natural inclination in our competitive world is to always fight when challenged. But creating good teams requires allowances for some tension and differences among people’s respective emotional maturity and life experiences. It’s knowing when to assert and drive, and when to breathe deeply and move on that can impact the success of the team.
And also this: all people traveling the path to wisdom will occasionally find it necessary to stop in the Uttoxeter market square and stand bareheaded in the rain.
P.S. As Dr. Johnson would have insisted, the punctuation in the title of this post uses the Oxford comma.