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Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry: Two Models for Motivation

June 28, 2012

Two Twenties (Quasi-)Heroes

Martin Arrowsmith was what we in the era of the Myers Briggs and Susan Cain’s Quiet would call an introvert.  His favorite place was his lab bench, his favorite people those who wouldn’t mind if he swung back and forth between not saying anything for hours and talking intensely about his work.  He dragged his wife to a remote island and immediately denied her, himself, and half the islanders the serum that would cure their plague because he wanted a scientifically valid experiment.  Torn constantly between his on-and-off desire to do public health work, his friends’ insistence that he take a higher place in society and in the scientific world, and his own real dream to spend almost every hour of his life hunched over a microscope or centrifuge, he was relentless when following an idea and only accidentally motivational: his drive and passion could be both contagious and off-putting.

Elmer Gantry, on the other hand, was a charmer.  He could lead a horse to water and make it want to drink, if you will.  Or more accurately, he could lead the sinners to put money in the basket and women to come home to his bed.  Gantry was a glad-hander, a talker, glib and forceful while he was looking you in the eye, less appealing in retrospect or in the silence after he’d left.  The opposite of Arrowsmith, he was the consummate outgoing motivator, and instead of being accidentally inspiring, he was too often accidentally disastrous.  Many of those who came close to him died, often in terrible ways.  But each time, he came out smiling; he ended up with a large church in a bustling city with a prosperous and generous congregation.

As you probably know, neither of these men is real: both are products of Sinclair Lewis’s imagination.  Arrowsmith was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1926, although Lewis turned it down.  Both men are exaggerations of reality–although both Gantry and the famous evangelist Billy Sunday were athletes before becoming ministers, and the scientist and writer Lewis worked with to create Arrowsmith was so central to its story that he received 25% of the novel’s profits, both of which facts suggest a large measure of truth went into the works.

In any case–whether the stories are exaggerations, satire, or accurate reflections of reality, or all three–these two characters represent two very different styles of leadership and motivation.  We would do well to remember their lessons and to learn how to reap the benefits of both styles.  (Of course, we should do it without getting anyone killed, a feat neither Arrowsmith nor Gantry was able to achieve.)  Let’s look at the two styles and see what we can draw from each.

Two Motivational Styles: Pros and Cons

Arrowsmith was, as I mentioned earlier, only accidentally motivational.  Observing the hours of labor he devoted to his lab, his passion in talking about his work (and his lack of interest in talking about much else), and his joy and humility in discovering a life-saving “phage,” others around him often could not help being attracted to him and wanting to emulate him.  Those who got close to him, moreover, became almost obsessively attached, seeing depths that he did not expose to everyone.

On the other hand, he was a hard man to live with.  Both of his wives were occasionally fed up with his inability to leave the lab and, say, show up to dinner.  One of them suffered the ultimate consequence for his devotion to his work: because he wanted a clean experiment, his first wife caught the plague and died.  And when she died, he wasn’t even there; he was tracking his experiment elsewhere.  Moreover, he could be as abrasive as he was brilliant and passionate: to those who disagreed with him or wanted him to play political roles, he was terse and borderline insulting.  Finally, his introversion and devotion to his lab sometimes caused problems when he did go out in public.  Awkward flirtations with inappropriate women and an inability to engage in small talk made him something of a problem in social situations.

Elmer Gantry was the opposite in every way.  His motivational style reflected the most up-to-date handbooks on business leadership.  The 1920s, especially the 20s as Lewis captured them, was the great era of the “joiners” and the “boosters.”  Evangelical traveling shows brought in hundreds of earnest, devoted followers a night, and it was the big man with the big smile and the friendly handshake who carried all with him.  (Not that that’s changed significantly.)

Gantry, though, was as much of a problem behind the scenes as Arrowsmith was in public.  He deserted people, undermined them, cajoled and conned and cowed them into doing what was only best for him.  He was all surface and no depth.  While Arrowsmith had deep attraction for those who knew him well, Gantry drew people to him effortlessly who then found themselves disappointed.  There was a reason that one of the posters for the movie version proclaimed “Bless Him!  Damn Him!”

Elmer Gantry

Can The Two Ever Co-Exist?

The ideal would be to either take from each man the qualities that made him motivational and leave those that made him awful: a leader with passionate devotion to his or her work who could model that devotion and at the same time perform the absolutely necessary small talk, hand-shaking, and salesmanship that draws people close enough to see the devotion.  I don’t know whether such a combination is possible in a single individual; maybe the ideal is a group of leaders with complementary traits.

While the two may never peacefully co-exist, especially in one person, we need to remember that both types–many types–can be leaders in the right place and time.  Also, we should always keep in mind that no one person is a perfect leader, and the very role of leadership can bring out the “dark sides” of the various characters we place in positions of power.  So ask yourself: Which are you closer to?  How might you lead those who are of another type?  How can you bring your passion to bear without overbearing or bring your charm into service without leaving disappointment behind?

Thousands of “business leadership” books have been published in the last decade alone, but sometimes it is the classics, the works that expose humans in all their strengths and weaknesses, that can lead us to ask the most important questions.  And just incidentally, those questions rarely have anything to do with the locations of cheese.

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