Last week, I had a conversation with young woman about what the Harry Potter stories mean to us. It brought me back to what was so compelling about a tale of an orphaned boy alone in an alien world of wizards.
I find Harry one of the most important literary characters of our time. In a post from September 2007, I wrote,
Professional people experience the suffering of failure and its consequences. Yet, we are not suppose to either acknowledge it or let it affect us.Suffering in life takes on many forms. It can come at our own hands when we’ve done something regrettable or through the agency of other people. The question for us who are in the professional world is whether the suffering we experience has any value. Is there something to affirm in suffering, or is it simply an experience to avoid at all costs.It was this question that came to me as I came to be introduced to Harry Potter.
When I wrote those words, I had only viewed the first five films in the series. I had not read the books. Through the visual imagery of film, I came to see the credibility of Harry's leadership coming through the agency of him as the heroic sufferer . After I read the series over a two month span, my assessment of Harry remained.
I'm reposting both the remainder of the original post and my follow up post on Harry because I believe that the lessons of strength through suffering embodied in the Harry Potter myth is one that we need to hear during a time of financial hardship. By following Harry, we can learn how to lead people and organizations during times as difficult as they are now.
HARRY POTTER, THE HEROIC SUFFERER (July 2007)
Harry Potter’s Real Story
I came late to the Harry Potter stories. All the reviews of the films and books had misled me to think that it is a story about heroism and courage of a young boy at a school for wizards. For ten years, I could not muster the emotional energy to become involved in a children's fantasy story. Increasing, my practical and intellectual interest is reality, the real world where people live and experience life. I’ve lived far too long diverted by spin and pseudo-reality. The world we live in, I find, is filled with fantasy, or rather it is an artificial world of escapist dreams. The diversion of fantasy can have the salutary effect of buffeting us against the suffering we may experience in real life. Yet, it is when we face reality that we discover aspects about our lives and ourselves that living in a dream world doesn’t afford. Ultimately, living in a fantasy world makes it more difficult to face the realities that beg us to pay attention.
Recently, listening to an XM radio interview with David Yates, director and David Heyman, producer of the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, compelled me to enter Harry’s world. The way they described the movie helped me to see that there was more than a children’s fantasy tale in J.K. Rowling’s story. So, over the course of one week, I watched the first five HP films in order. I came away from viewing the series with a deep desire to read the stories, and will soon, and to reflect on their meaning for our time. Until then, here's what I see.
Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer
Harry Potter was born into suffering with the death of parents. That experience of suffering continues through his mistreatment by the Dursleys, the peer abuse of the Slytherin punks, and then on to the long series of attacks by Lord Voldemort.
Of the reviews that I’ve read over the years, what stands out to people is Harry’s courage in the face of danger. It is certainly there, but what makes Harry the most unique hero of our time, like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, is the effect that suffering has upon how he lives his life.
Harry's strength in facing danger and tragedy is born in suffering. During one of the movies, Harry comments that what he is facing is no worse that the loss of his parents and the abuse of the Dursley’s. Suffering is the core of his life experience, and has made him the heroic figure that he is. As the child who lived, he lives not because of some magic ability, but because of the strength of character that comes through suffering.
This dialog with Sirius Black from the Order of the Phoenix film captures some of this perspective.
Harry Potter:This connection between me and Voldemort, what if the reason for it is that I'm becoming more like him. I just feel so angry, all the time. And what if after everything I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me. What if I'm becoming bad?
Sirius Black: I want you to listen to me very carefully Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. You understand?
[Harry nods his head]
Sirius Black: Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That's who we really are.
I find this a very biblical perspective that goodness and darkness inhabit us all, and that we choose to cater to one or the other. The suffering Harry experiences is because of the darkness in the world. The suffering has a chastening effect on him. It wipes away the illusions about there being some magical resolution to all problems. He understands that he must act. And so he does.
This perspective on Harry’s character reminds me of the ancient Stoics who had a similar reality based view of life. They carried no fantastical optimism into life. They recognized that goodness rises out of suffering. C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and Oxford don had the idea that suffering produces a reservoir that increases our capacity for love. That is what I am seeing in Harry.
Harry reminds me of Homer’s Achilles whose heroic endeavors are for honor within the community. For Harry, it isn’t some abstract notion of community that he serves. His courage comes from a core of goodness that is released through his friendship with Ron and Hermione and through the teachers who recognize in him something special.
Harry's suffering inoculates him from a fantastical idealism.
He lacks the innocent optimism of youth that would certainly have been completely crushed by the Dursley’s. In this sense he is like the ancient Stoic who knows his duty and does it regardless of the consequences. He can never fully feel joy because the suffering of loss is with him all the time. Yet, he knows love from his friends, and their love for him inspires in him acts of sacrifice that completes the bond of their little community.
For me this is what makes Harry the most compelling character I’ve come across in a long, long time. I can’t wait to read the books because I want to see what Rowling sees in this.
I don’t think his suffering is merely a literary device.
There is a moral purpose to it, and through its power, transforms the community that surrounds him.
Hear me correctly, that shared suffering transforms a community, giving it strength to face the most challenging difficulties.
In the Order of the Phoenix film, at the point where the Hogwart’s wizards and witches leave to go to the Ministry in London, Harry tells them that he wants to go by himself. He says this to protect them from danger, death and the experience of his own suffering. Yet, they know because they have been with him so long that their lives are cast together, and they now will share in his sufferings. It is a powerful statement about friendship and community.
It isn’t simply the bond of shared values, but the bond of shared suffering that gives their fellowship real depth and life.
It is this very experience that so many professional people lack. They experience suffering through failure, loss or the cruelty of others. And for the most part they suffer alone. Several years ago, during a series of encounters with men in various professions, I asked them, “If you were to become an total failure today, who would stand by you?” Virtually all of them could only answer, “My mother.”
Tragic that professional people who are endowed with great talent and opportunity are also alone in their personal pursuits.
It is at the point of failure that most of us experience the suffering of isolation.
We lose a child or a parent, and people come to our side to offer comfort. It may not be the precise wording, but I heard once, something like, “Success has a thousand friends, and failure none.”
It is also what so many churches, synagogues and religious institutions miss as well. Communities that avoid identification with the suffering of others, live in an unreal world of ideas abstracted from the real world.
Listen to people who speak of the power of their religious experience, it often has to do with the experience of others reaching out and sharing in their suffering just when they need it. It is this shared suffering that makes the message of redemption so powerful for so many.
In The Order of the Phoenix film, near the end of the concluding battle at the Ministry, Lord Voldemort tells Harry that he is a fool and will lose everything. Harry looks at him and tells him that he has what Voldemort lacks, and that is friends and love. And that he feels sorry for him. How many professional people in hearing this exchange will look at Harry with longing for the same type of camaraderie and togetherness?
Frodo’s suffering with Sam
A close literary example to Harry Potter’s suffering is the story of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo steps forward and accepts the role of heroic sufferer as ringbearer. He is able to do so because a fellowship of men, hobbits, elves and a dwarf who join him in the journey.
Ultimately his journey to cast the ring into the fire is a lonely one, shared only with his friend Samwise Gamgee. Through out Peter Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s mythic story, we see Frodo change as he absorbs the suffering that comes with being the ringbearer. Frodo’s greatness comes from his determination to see his quest through to the end no matter what the consequences. Through suffering and the acceptance of his own mortality, Frodo does his duty and accomplishes what no other character in this story could do. Through the faithful long-suffering friendship of Sam, Frodo is able to bear the suffering through to the end of his quest. For Frodo, this suffering remains a mark forever on his life, a living presence that eventually leads him away from the Shire.
It is not unusual for contemporary films to feature suffering as a human experience. Often this suffering is viewed as a victimization of a person, rather than an experience that leads to strength, courage and friendship.
As we see in Harry Potter, the core of his suffering is from the loss of parents. Death in our society is treated as inconvenience. It is the most inexplicable experience. Our culture hates to acknowledge our mortality. We retreat into unreality as a way of not dealing with it. Yet as we see in Harry Potter, a story that takes place in a fantastic world of wizards and witches, reality is filled with death and suffering, and out of that experience comes personal greatness and the salvation of community.
In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” This is the conventional wisdom of our time. We run away from the emotions of fear, anger, and hate because we do not want suffering. But what Yoda does not say, and what we see in Harry, is that these feelings are real, and that most of us suffer in silence because we are afraid to let the reality of what we feel come out. Yet, when we face suffering as reality, we find the opportunity to discover virtues that bring strength. So, in Harry, we see not a person who has given in to his anger, but rather see his anger in the context of the love and fellowship of his friends. They are the counterbalance that transforms the sufferer from victim to hero.
Finding Strength in Suffering
I can’t tell you how you can find strength in the suffering you experience. That is for you to discover on your own with people who care about you. Regardless of whether your suffering is self-imposed or an affliction from some other source, recognize that your struggle to find strength will make you a person who is able to befriend others who suffer in the same way.
Ron and Hermione’s friendship with Harry was deepened by their sharing in his experience of suffering. Frodo and Sam were transformed through the suffering they shared. I don’t believe we can go looking for people to share our suffering. Rather, the key to finding strength is our recognition and empathetic response to other’s suffering first.
In other words, we must give strength in order to find the strength that we need.
The embarrassment of failure, the humiliation of a lost job, the emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one, or the anger that accompanies being the victim of another person’s cruelty can become a source strength for greatness, if we let it. We see this in Harry. Can we see it in ourselves? I hope so.
HARRY POTTER - 21ST CENTURY LEADER (February 2008)
Since Christmas (2007), I have read the entire Harry Potter series. I just finished Deathly Hallows, and must say that it is delightful to read a series of books that ends well. i don't mean a happy ending, though it is, but rather, a well concluded ending.
I found the series a great exploration in the nature of leadership. My friend Tom Morris has written an excellent book on Harry Potter and its application to business and professional life. Pick up If Harry Potter Ran General Electric and enjoy learning how J.K. Rowling celebrates the best of ancient wisdom in her story. I read Tom's book before I read the series, and I'm getting ready to reread it now that I'm done. There is much richness to be mined from both authors.
Here are a few of my reflections on Harry as a 21st century leader.
1. Harry works as a team. Ron and Hermione are his partners in leadership. Their communication is a fine example of how a group of people need to interact and care for one another. The caring is important because it is the basis of trust and honesty. It isn't always easy. However, at the core of their friendship are values of love and belief in one another. This is how they are able to weather the ups-and-downs that all relationships confront.
2. Harry's character is more important than his skills. The whole series is about the development of Harry's character. I won't give away any of the story. But there is a point near the end of the seventh novel where the choice he makes is emblematic of his character. It frees him to face his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort, without fear. It doesn't mean he isn't afraid of the danger. It means that he is prepared for whatever outcome results. He is at peace with himself and the world. The character emphasis is important to J.K. Rowling the author because throughout the series she shows Harry to be a rather indifferent student. Yet, in the heat of battle, he is the one above all the rest who is capable leading.
One of the subthemes running through the series is the interplay between good and evil, and their connection to human community and human institutions. The triangular relationship between the Ministry of Magic, Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and the Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore and his Dumbledore Army is a commentary on modern Western society. There are those who treat people, communities and institutions as subjects of their own will to power. There are those within those institutions who believe that the institutions represent an end in themselves, and all those outside the boundaries of the institutions are threats to its continued existence. And there are those for whom friendship and personal endeavor are what make a community worth investing in.
What Rowling shows in her seven part story is that evil and institutionalism fail because of a lack of love. At the heart of character is self-sacrifical love. Harry's leadership is authenticated by his willingness to die for those whom he cares about. For Voldemort and the administrators of the Ministry, manipulation and control are the heart of leadership. These inadequate, destructive human motivations are shown in the story to be weaker than the power of the love of friends.
3. Harry's leadership greatness is born in suffering. We live in an era where all pain and suffering are viewed as bad and without value. Pleasure and self-aggrandizement rule. However, the picture we have of Harry is of a young man who turns suffering, pain and loss into the motivations to create goodness and friendship. The loss of his parents, the loss of his godfather, the loss of friends, the suffering at the hands of the Ministry and ultimately the loss of his mentor are not experiences that have broken him as a person. They have strengthened him to be the kind of leader that communities and organizations in crisis need. His hard life instills in him a drive for a depth in human friendship that is the very strength that overcomes the power of evil.
4. Harry is a learner, not a student. In every instance, Harry looks deeply into his experience to understand it. He has no impulse toward academic abstract reflection. Instead, he is the Aristotlean everyman whose greatness comes in action, not in ideas. His courage, his insightfulness, his decisiveness in battle are all characteristics of a man of action. Harry doesn't turn to books to find his answers. He depends on Herminone to do that. Harry rather turns to contemplation in action to learn what he must do. He absorbs the learning and it becomes the basis for his ability to lead successfully.
5. Harry understands that leaders develop leaders. This over worked idea operates in the series as Harry's preparation of the Hogwarts students for battle against the forces of Voldemort. Their preparation does not disappoint as they take the lead when he is separated from them in every respect. They have taken his courage and embedded it in their own hearts. How did this happen? It happen as Harry trained and mentored them. He did not do this as their superior, but rather as their able peer and friend whose care for them extended to their preparation for battle.
The world that J.K. Rowling has created is not parallel to ours. It is perpendicular. There is really very little one-to-one correspondence between the world of wizards and our world. What connection does exist is different enough so that we can see our world in new ways. This is true of the picture of leadership that she gives us in the person of Harry Potter. I recommend reading the entire series in as short a period time as possible. You'll gain a picture of what is possible in our world if we only choose to put character instead of power and position at the heart of organizational leadership.
Harry Potter picture: Flickr 7305079946_7b789d6682_o / Some rights reserved