It’s Lonely at the Top – Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Non-Coercive Leadership

I returned to my old paperback copy of Zarathustra recently, this time in connection with some work I’ve been doing on the topic of non-coercive power, or what I have been calling the power of asking. I’ve been developing some thoughts around this mantra: The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command. So it seemed to me I ought to come to terms with or at least try to deepen my understanding of what Nietzsche says in this book about command, or coercive power.

I was specifically interested in the pronouncement made in “The Stillest Hour” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, chapter 44):

‘…You are one who has unlearned obeying: now shall you command!’
‘Do you not know who is most needed by all? The one who commands great things.
‘To accomplish great things is difficult: but more difficult is to command great things.
‘That is what is most unpardonable in you: You have the power and you do not want to rule.’

It’s a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that has attracted a lot of important commentary, from Jung’s seminars on Zarathustra in the 1930s to Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign seminars in 2001-2. It’s a crux, a point of departure, and it’s also a spot where I might have to take my leave of Nietzsche. How are we to read the injunction here to “command” anew, or to “rule” according to one’s “power”, after one has “unlearned obeying”?

It’s an easy rhetorical move to make, from obeying to commanding, but it seemed to me it also might involve a serious misstep — to unlearn obedience, only to take up, or institute, command.

Put aside for the moment the questionable judgment of “what is most needed by all,” and the ethical as well as the political consequences that judgment, or others like it, could have and historically have had. I am equally wary of the emphasis here on doing and commanding “great” things, or at least wary of misreading it. The pursuit of “great things” (Großes) tends to invite and encourage, or at least excuse, all sorts of abuses.

To wield coercive power, to direct or to command great things may indeed be difficult, even more difficult than doing great things; but it is harder still, I think, and it is really the more urgent project, to unlearn obedience and command and to learn, instead, the practice of non-coercive power.

If that means scaling down from great to small, then I’m happy to start small and, if need be, stay small. I’m not suggesting we stop dreaming and doing great things, taking on big challenges, imagining great enterprises, but in most cases I am inclined to urge and apply something like the rule of Mother Teresa: “don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…. The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.” (That much misquoted line, by the way, is from her “Instructions to the M.C. Sisters,” October 30th, 1981, as cited by Brian Kolodiejchuk in Come Be My Light.)

Here, I imagine, Nietzsche might wish take his leave of me, or at least Nietzscheans and devout Catholics alike will cry out in exasperation or horror at the unholy coupling I’ve just imagined. But I suspect that when all is said and done, these two points of view can be reconciled, or at least they are not so far apart as they may at first seem. Consider, just for starters, the answer Zarathustra receives when he objects that he lacks the lion’s voice for command: “Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world.’”

More on that another day. Here I want only to point out the thing that was on my mind this morning: that is Zarathustra’s sadness as he takes leave of his friends at the close of the second book. My Stillest Hour, Zarathustra’s “terrible mistress” — “or something,” which speaks to him “voicelessly” — has “ordered” him to to leave. He obeys. Yes, obeys; he announces at the start of the chapter that he is “unwillingly obedient,” unwillig-folgsam. He comes to his friends deeply troubled and unhappy; and after he has recounted the conversation with his mistress he is overwhelmed:

when Zarathustra had spoken these words, the force of his pain and the nearness of the parting from his friends overwhelmed him, such that he wept loudly; and no one knew how to console him. That night, however, he went away alone and left his friends.

Zarathustra will “go as a shadow of that which must come: thus will you command, and thus lead the way.” But to command and to lead he must “mellow.” As his mistress tells him, his fruits are ripe, but he is not ripe for his fruits: “so,” she continues, “you must go back to your solitude.” To deprive himself of all human society may, in fact, prepare Zarathustra to command great things; but it’s painful to leave his friends. So painful that he weeps — loudly.

Exile may be the price Zarathustra must pay to overcome himself and lead the way. It’s lonely at the top, and Zarathustra’s mountain is no exception. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves of less romantic and heroic ideas of what it means to lead.

Unlearn obeying and then, the most difficult thing of all: unlearn command. If we practice non-coercive leadership, we can learn to create and share power with others, without reverting to command or obedience, and without taking our leave of those we love.

8 thoughts on “It’s Lonely at the Top – Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Non-Coercive Leadership

  1. Guest

    A friend of mine, speaking on getting beyond the old command-and-control nature of most institutions, at least in the Western world, suggests that the next answer will be a bodhi sangha.I believe that bodha sangha means ‘wise community’. A bodhi is an exceptional wise and, therefore, exceptionally loving being, often a teacher of love for otheres. My friend is a Buddhist Rinpoche, appointed such by His Holiness the Dalai Lama so he talks in Buddhist vocabulary. What he means in his call for the next human evolutionary shift to be a ‘bodhi sangha’ also involves a call for radical trust. Love is radical trust, I think. If my friend’s suggestion has any merit, and I do not give greater weight to Nietzsche’s thinking than the thinking of any wise human struggling to know how best to be human (kinda like Zarathustra was doing, eh? or you, Mr. Galdieri), then one possible answer to your lovely proposal that if we (1) unlearn obeying then (2) unlearn command (and-control?) and (3) aspire to practice non-coercive leadership is a bodhi sangha, a human community rooted in love, which is a form of radical trust. All humans need to learn to love all others as they create and share power — or as they practice a deep form of radical trust, which is another way of saying, at least to me, love.

    Love, some wise musicians once sang, is the answer. I was raised Catholic and was pressured greatly to be a nun. I did not have the call to a religious vocation. I no longer identify as Catholic and I can’t speak for those who currently adhere to the current and, I believe, very corrupt Catholic Church but no true catholic, which the nuns of my education told me meant universal, would be offended by a call to be more loving as a solution to sharing power with others.

    Great post, Mr. Galdieri. I love how you are revisiting Zarathustra and Nietsche on your blog. Such whispers of thought are important and it is gracious of you to post them openly.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtful and really cool reply to my post.

      I don’t have a Buddhist vocabulary, so when I see you talking about a community rooted in love, my mind goes to Augustine, who discusses community in similar terms — people bound together by the things they love, or by a common love. Not quite a Bodhi Sangha, maybe, but there’s room for negotiation, at least.

      “Love is radical trust.” That’s really compelling. I need to spend some more time with it. Love, or radical trust, may ultimately be the answer, or (here’s another song for you) all we need, but in the meantime, it’s worth asking what steps we can take to shift power.

      How about ownership as an answer, one answer, to command and control? It’s another model: owners don’t just have jobs or assignments; they have rights and responsibilities — a share in decisions, risks and outcomes: I want to say a share in power that would require a relaxing of top-down control and hierarchies of command, maybe something like ‘cooperation’ (or at least, ‘equity’). It sounds like a step in what I believe is the right direction.

      That may sound disappointingly business-like and a community of owners may not exactly be a wise community. But we need practical mechanisms and institutions as well as lofty aspirations. I’m pretty sure your Rinpoche friend would agree that we need to translate love or compassion into practice, and, yes, things may get lost in translation. Let’s accept that.

      Practice is what we need: habituation, exercise. If we are ever to unlearn command-obedience, we need to start learning how to ask and listen and share. Even a little break or variation from the dysfunctional routine is welcome. It gives us a chance to start over, together. That’s the opportunity we have — and have always had.


  2. jennifersertl

    Knowing when to lead and when to follow is perhaps the greatest challenge we have when we are on project teams with so many talented people. What I gain from your post is a personal inventory of these key questions I am now asking myself:

    Are the projects I am on truly worthy of my voice?

    Am I able to create a clear picture of the future I envision so that others can imput and share in the co-creation?

    Am I willing to lead if it is clear that I have the voice and the skills the moment requires?

    Much to chew on. Both annoyed and relieved to find you and your writing.

    Onward . . .



    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      I like your inventory, the honesty (and humility) it requires, and I need to consider it some more.

      There ought to be something in there about not just one’s own voice, but one’s ability to listen — to hear and more importantly to heed the voices of others. Or else we’re just ordering people about, nicely and quietly.

      I’m fascinated by listening in part because true listening puts power (and leadership) up for grabs, or offers all parties a fleeting chance to reconstruct and share power in new ways.

      I’m intrigued that you are annoyed: I guess annoyance can be the start of a good conversation.



  3. jennifersertl

    Consciousness is heavy. Once one is aware, one is culpable. I so appreciate the thoughtfulness of your writing. I was smiling as I typed “annoyed” as I left your post a bit heavier knowing there are things I need to attend to and I am not quite sure I have the energy just yet. We need more writing like your and Tim Rayner’s who like Franz Kafka suggests “A book (now a post-JS) must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.

    Onward . . .


  4. Pingback: It's Lonely at the Top - Nietzsche, Mother Tere...

  5. Pingback: On Being Sullen | lvgaldieri

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