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Alan Alda, the curious leader

Photo credit: Andy Carvin, flickr

There are people designated as ‘leaders’ in organizations – the CEO and the top bosses usually. There’s the politician as ‘leader’. And then there are people out there, in the culture, without a formal position in a hierarchy, who never call themselves a ‘leader’ but people follow them. They set agendas, make us think differently.

The actress Emily Blunt was working with Alan Alda on a new film recently and said in a newspaper article last week, “He is infectious and wise and impossible not to follow around.” She and her co-star Amy Adams, says Blunt, just loved to be near him, so much so that he would look up and see them following him and call out: “Leave me alone, I wanna eat my lunch.”

I have an Alan Alda quote on my wall. It goes:

“Be brave enough to live creatively.
The creative is the place where no-one else has ever been.
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.
You cannot get there by bus; only by hard work, risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing.”

Yes, that Alan Alda – Hawkeye from Mash. But, you see, he’s also the co-founder of the annual World Science Festival, author of ‘Dear Albert’, a play about Einstein, and when I switched on BBC Radio 4 recently someone was explaining how particle physics works and I thought “Why does that guy sound like Alan Alda?” Because it was Alan Alda, of course.

He also hosts and facilitates major seminars on subjects like ‘What it is to be human?’

Natural leaders just attract and hold our attention with new thoughts, new ideas, a clarity of explanation, a warmth and enthusiasm in Alda’s case, that almost defy analysis. It’s a form of leadership by curiosity, by asking questions, by wanting to learn.

People like Alda are rare natural leaders. They are, as Blunt says,”infectious” or, as Richard Dawkins would say, “memetic”. They are like a human equivalent of the internet – medium, message and amplifier all at the same time. They kind of get your molecules to vibrate a little faster.

Different people need or are attracted to different forms of leadership, I think. All I know is that when I hear Alda’s voice or see him on TV, I want to stop what I’m doing and see what he has to say next.

I can’t say that happens when I see an official ‘leader’ on the TV or hear them on the radio.

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