Classic in Focus – Don Quixote


Web_Cover_Don Quixote

The story of Don Quixote is an allegory of the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. It deals with the philosophical discussion of the human survival. The portrait of Don Quixote hangs in the parliament of France. How do you explain that in the country of Napoleon and Charles de Gaule, it is Quixote who watches over French ministers as they conduct the daily state of affairs? The answer to that query lies in the fact that the vital concerns of leadership are the fundamental issues of life and not the technical questions of authority and power. Don Quixote teaches us that life is to be challenged. The passion and discipline of a willful human spirit is vital to being a leader. Don Quixote does not accept reality. He imposes his imagination, his commitment and joy on it. Imagination and vision is necessary to lead. Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc and Steve Jobs envisioned things that others could not, and they profoundly influenced others. Quixote, like a Flamenco dancer is passionate and disciplined in himself.

Spain was a great power, but was on the decline when Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was being written. The Inquisition had done its damage and the Armada had failed. In such circumstances, Don Quixote addressed two important questions. How can we justify victory when victory is so illusive? Why be virtuous when virtue is not rewarded?

The story begins in La Mancha, a small town in the Spanish countryside, where an old gentleman Alonso Quixana resided. Quixana has read many a tale of chivalry and has come to believe in them, literally, even when the time of knights was long over. He decides to roam the country as a knight-errant and names himself Don Quixote de La Mancha. Neither his niece nor his housekeeper can stop him from riding his old horse, Rocinante, out into the country. Deciding he needs a lady in whose name to perform great deeds, he renames a farm girl on whom he once had a crush, Dulcinea-el-Toboso.

He sets out early one morning and ends up at an inn, which he believes to be a castle. He asks the innkeeper, who he thinks to be the lord of the castle, to dub him a knight. He spends the night holding vigil over his armour, where he gets beaten up by muleteers (people who drove the mules), when he objected to them trying to use his armour to water their mules. Eager to get rid of him, the innkeeper then “dubs” him as a knight, and sends him on his way. On his way, he earns another beat down when he intervenes on seeing a farmer beating his son.

While everyone loves the Apple Computer’s commercial that celebrates ‘the crazy ones’ and ‘the misfits’, the world still demands conformity to maintain the order. While achieving this conformity, it does not mind inflicting physical and emotional violence on the misfits. Our education successfully manages to push people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates away. Other children in the school take it upon themselves to cure the weird ones like Michael Phelps, Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Hrithik Roshan of their weirdness. Our organisations demand innovation, but kill every spark of creativity with the bottom-line argument. The outspoken ones are labelled argumentative and the quiet ones mediocre. And our homes, they remain the most effective instruments of this normative process.

Web 2_Don QuixoteAfter the beat-down he got from the farmer, a labourer finds Quixote lying semi-conscious near the road and leads him home to his niece. She and the housekeeper, with the best of intentions, plot with of Quixote’s friends, the priest and the barber, to destroy Quixote’s library. They believe that by burning the books of chivalry they would be able to ‘cure’ Quixote. It was not to be. Quixote decides to leave again, looking for sage Munaton, his mortal foe, who he believed, destroyed his library.

He asked a peasant named Sancho Panza to become his squire and promised him the governorship of an island in return. While Panza quickly realises that his master is mad, but he nevertheless hopes that Quixote will make good on his promise to name Panza the governor of an island. On this adventure ride, Quixote battles a windmill and gets involved in several altercations that result in abject humiliation. Yet he continues.

As expected, Quixote continues to create more trouble for himself when he decides to free a chain of galley-slaves, criminals who are chained together and are being led to be punished. Sympathising with the criminals as victims of love, Quixote attacks the armed guard and in the chaos that ensues, the criminals escape. After he freed them, Quixote, believing that they were in his gratitude, asks the men to present themselves to Dulcinea and pay homage. But the criminals did not feel any gratitude towards Quixote and took him for a fool. They flatly refuse to heed Quixote’s request, throw stones at Quixote when he protests, and escape. Leaving Quixote, baffled to find himself so ill-treated by the very people he had helped. In the ensuing events, Quixote and Panza keep finding themselves in deep waters before a fed-up Panza gets the priest and the barber to bring Quixote home in a cage. In the beginning, he struggles to get out of this ‘enchanted’ cage but eventually gives up. Giving an impression that he was finally ‘cured’.

The people he met on his journey saw him as a fool. It did not matter that he was kind and compassionate. It did not matter if he was kind and genuinely wanted to help others. It did not matter that his seemingly stupid behaviours came from higher virtues. He was mocked at every stage of his journey but Quixote persisted. For him, imagination was an arbitrary act of will. It was a passionate declaration of the human spirit and a refusal to accept the constraints of reality. He painstakingly remained focused on what he believed was possible. The world around him kept ridiculing him for that. It was only that much he could take before he retired.

After a few rather dull days at his home, Quixote gets a visitor. This visitor, Samson Carrasco, a scholar at the university, seeks out Quixote after reading about him in a published book of his and Sancho Panza’s adventures written by Sidi Hamid Benengeli. Inspired by this validation of their adventures, both the squire and his master sneak off again. Aside from creating a minor skirmish with some puppets, most of their adventures this time result in people recognising them; with the fallout coming down on their own heads. They meet up with a duke and duchess who had read and loved the book about them and adopt the pair as their own personal playthings. With the help of their imaginative steward, the duke creates practical jokes, adventures and disasters for Panza and Quixote. They devise stories and assemble servants to play the necessary parts. Quixote is brought down to reality when the disguised Samson Carrasco challenges him and wins, forcing Quixote to return home.

Web_Don QuixoteFeeling like a failure as they return home, Quixote, perks up as he begins reinventing himself as a romantic pastoral shepherd. However, it is not to be, for after he is home he soon becomes gravely ill; but returns to sanity. He reclaims his former name and identity as Alonso Quixana, and dies soon after.

But why look at Don Quixote for leadership? What lessons can we possibly learn from the fictional 16th century gentleman who careered around the Spanish countryside tilting at windmills and challenging sheep to battle? Well essentially because he provides a different lens to look at the world with. Behind his madness lies infinite wisdom. In Dale Wasserman’s musical play “Man of La Mancha”, Quixote says, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

James March, in his 2003 film, “Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote’s Lessons for Leadership”, narrates, “We live in a world that emphasises realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.” That separates the commoners from the leaders of the mankind. Humanity has progressed on the shoulders of men who were thought to be crazy by their fellow men. In 1642, Galileo Galilei was thought to be mad and dangerous because everyone else was so sure of earth being flat. In 1865, people believed Abraham Lincoln to be possessed by the devil for he wanted to abolish slavery. In 1871, it would have been difficult for people to not dismiss the Wright brothers’ (who used to run bicycle repair and sale shop) attempts at making the flying machine as wishful thinking. In 1920, Gandhi’s call for a non-violent fight against British imperialism must have evoked hearty laughter in the power corridors of the British Raj. And yet all these men persisted with conviction in what they had envisioned. That is the essence of leadership for leader comes from Old English word lædan, which translates to showing the path.

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