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Leadership Lessons From the Sands of the Dune

“A good ruler doesn’t have to be a God… Not even God-like Stilgard. A good ruler must be sensitive to the people he rules”, Leto Atreides II, later named “God Emperor of Dune”, explained to a Fremen Naib (leader of small community called a “Sietch”). This is all fiction of course, but the mind of Frank Hervert does offer some interesting points about the general nature of leadership.

Frank Herbert, the Author of the “Dune” books and a genius of fiction writing, delivered an epic story spanning thousands of years of human evolution. The stories of Dune tell a tale of humanity’s evolution and expansion throughout space in spanning a few thousand years and beginning with Earth to the farthest reaches of the known universe. The books begin at roughly the year 10,000 on a desert planet called “Irakis”.

On this planet a “spice” named Melange is harvested. It is harvested only on this planet and is the most precious commodity in the known universe. The gifts of the spice are unnaturally long life, increased awareness, computer-like thinking ability and many other abilities. Under the right genetic make-up, it also yields prescience—the gift of seeing the future.

Naturally, such a scarce commodity with such a high importance creates mischief, wars, betrayals and an “endless struggle to protect it” Paul Muad’ib noted (Leto II’s father and Prophet of the Fremen).  Although the story itself can be difficult to discuss and analyze in detail in a short paper, it essentially discusses the leadership of the entire human race and thus it is an exciting and interesting example of leadership with strong relations to applicable leadership theory.

Paul “Muad’ib” Atreides epitomizes the concept of trait and skills leadership. His family’s bloodline has been genetically engineered for thousands of years by a group named the “Bene Gesserit” made up of highly trained, almost superhuman females dedicated to “guiding humanity” through political and genetic manipulation.

For generations they have been seeking the breeding of a genetic superhuman with superior prophetic powers and an abnormally high awareness and intelligence. However, due to a war between feuding royal houses, Paul’s entire family and ruling house were destroyed, including his father the Duke Leto Atreides I, and he was forced to seek sanctuary with Irakis’ native race named the Fremen.

The Fremen are a race of hardened warriors resembling a mix of a sophisticated desert society and tightly integrated religious zealots. As time passes Paul’s leadership traits become more and more visible and as he grows older amongst the Fremen, with thoughts of vengeance, the Fremen begin to follow him and see him as one of their own. The Fremen saw the signs and portents in Paul’s traits and believed him to be their Prophet. Paul was strictly a trait leader.

Why is he simply a trait leader, one might wonder. The answer is simple. Paul did not transform the Fremen to something better, nor did he set them on a particular goal to be achieved. Paul simply fulfilled a pre-existing prophecy of the Fremen: that a voice from the “outer world” with specific super-human traits will come to save them.

Paul saw in his pre-science visions the end result of fulfilling this prophecy: “A holy Fremen Jihad that will encompass the entire known universe” with hundreds of millions of human lives lying in the wastes of his new empire. Paul saw that he can prevent this Jihad from occurring. All he had to do was not submit to the role that the Fremen have chosen for him, to not bow to prophecy, to transform (bold added for emphasis) them into something better. But he did not choose this because it could’ve meant defeat in his goal of vengeance for his family. Therefore, he played a role—nothing more.  He possessed natural superior traits and walked along a path that was chosen for him towards a goal that was prophesized by others. Naturally, Paul and his Fremen had their pound of flesh and an undying Jihad spread across the universe, under his name, until his “name became a curse, not a prayer”.

Paul possessed the qualities of a trait leader, but he chose not to influence his followers towards something positive for fear of failure. His goals were set for him y others, and thus Path-Goal leadership theories do not apply. He did not transform others and thus he never became a transformational leader. He simply fulfilled a role, nothing more.

Later, when his son was born (Leto Atreides II, named after Paul’s father) possessing the same super-human abilities, and expected to carry on in his father’s giant footsteps who was no longer just an emperor, but a God in the eyes of his followers, he could’ve taken an easy path. He could’ve “lived for [his] subjects and died for them. Accepted the Atreides mystique and followed [his] father. Or [he] could choose a different path: A Golden Path!” he explains to Stilgar, a Fremen leader.

Leto’s golden path was to become a tyrant superhuman ruler through an ancient transformation process which would elongate his life to thousands of years. In doing so, he would be able to guide and transform the entire human race across the universe towards self-determination and away from the control of the “spice” or any other single entity.

He saw this in his prescient visions and knew that it was possible. However, he knew the price he would have to pay in the end. History would remember him as a tyrant. The new and transformed human race in the future, who would be “free from the vision of a single man” he confronted Paul, would never see Leto II as a transformation leader. They would see him only as a tyrant. And in the end he would be assassinated by one of which he helped to free from “future pre-determined” (Herbert, God Emperor of Dune, 1987).

I use the epic story of Dune as an illustration of leadership precisely because of the difference of Paul and Leto’s reaction to the same universal problem—self-determination. The issue did not have to be self-determination. It could’ve been any other issue. But, Given that they both possessed the exact same extraordinary abilities, the same bloodline and even the same probing vision of the future, they chose completely different paths to lead. If we were to judge them based on trait or skill leadership theories alone they would be equally sound as leaders. If we were to looks at their results and methods of achieving their results in a positive way through influencing others (leading) then this model quickly falls apart.

Thus, it is exactly the ability and willingness to influence and transform one’s followers positively that reveals the defects in leadership models that are based on scalar quantities (to contrast vector quantities i.e. scalar plus direction. See college freshmen physics book).

In both my leadership reflection papers, I have made an argument against a pure view of trait leadership as the model of choice in leadership theory through the use of fictional illustrations. However, the lack of “reality” should not be construed as making the arguments themselves less logical or accurate. “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures”, Jessamyn West, a great author of the twentieth century believed.

I made those arguments with the hopes of showing that leadership theory (any one of the ten thousand that are out there) should always be concerned not just by the follower or the leader but their connections to others and their environment. In my view, leadership theory is as complex as the study of the “standard model” recently mentioned in news all over the World because of recent developments in physics.  Thus, a greater consideration must be given to understand this science without initial simplification.

About The Author
Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist. Former Consultant. Current Phd Student. Editor of the Human Talent Network community blog. I fought ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in my own way. Livin' life in Washington, DC
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