Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leaders to Managers Viking Style

[One of my more popular posts has some comments on Hugh Nibley’s essay on leaders and managers. Recently Jón Viðar Sigurðsson published an interesting essay called “Kings, Earls and Cheiftains. Rulers of Norway, Orkney and Iceland c. 900-1300,” in Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 69-108. I found much in Sigurðsson’s essay that fit well with the ideas that Nibley put forward and that interact with some scriptural passages. Page numbers after quotations refer to Sigurðsson’s article unless otherwise specified.]
Anyone who has read the Old Norse sagas will often discover what appears to be a rough and tumble lawless society that seems to be a sort of paradise of libertarian anarchy. Many of the sagas are set at the very beginning of the settlement of Iceland when there were few people who often took the law into their own hands out of necessity. Nevertheless there was a sense of civilization and rules to follow. More importantly, and this is clear from the sagas, there were leaders to follow. In Norway there were kings to follow. In fact, the sagas, such as Laxdæla Saga connect the establishment of a kingdom in Norway with the settlement of Iceland as many of the settlers were finding refuge from their expulsion from Norway. The Norwegian kings are always in the background of the sagas, even those taking place in Iceland, and their reigns serve as a chronological peg for the sagas (83-84). While the Vikings in Iceland did not have kings, they did have chieftains (goði).
When comparing the description of earls and chieftains with that of kings one clear difference emerges: the kings, who were at the top of the social hierarchy in the Old Norse society, do not only appear with a greater number of personal qualities than other secular leaders, but their qualities are also usually better than those of other rulers and depicted in greater detail. Kings are taller and stronger, more beautiful, wiser, more just, more generous and more victorious than other rulers (72-73).
Not only do the kings usually have twice the number of qualities, but the type of qualities are different:
In descriptions of the earls of Orkney and the kings of Norway, especially of the kings in the tenth and eleventh centuries, their ware skills are usually stressed. This is in clear contrast to the descriptions of the Icelandic chieftains. Their ability to fight in battles and to lead men in war is almost never mentioned. (74).
In both societies, leaders kept retainers, but this was short lived:
At the end of the Viking Age, only kings and princes could afford to keep a band of retainers. (74).
The term for retainer (húskarl) was originally a household term, they developed from the domestic sphere and were imported into the military and royal sphere.
Like the relationship between the owner of the farm and his servant, the bond between the king and follower was a reciprocal one, but the ties that bound retainer and king were stronger than those between the housecarl and farm owner. The follower and the master were bound by ties of friendship and loyalty. The retainer was expected to fight for his master in war, to be loyal to him in all legal disputes, and to obey his orders. In return, the master protected and supported his retainers. It was primarily freemen who could become retainers. They lived with their leader and ate at his table. The band of retainers constituted a brotherhood with a code of honour, and in addition to the duties towards his leader, the retainer had responsibilities towards his comrades. (74-75).
In Norway, this was relationship was codified in the law. In the twelfth century, Iceland began to follow the Norwegian system though on a smaller scale. They were called “home men” (heimamenn) but they were
men who did not work on the farm or have any specific duties in the management of it. . . . they were the chieftains’ bodyguards; they were expected to follow them through thick and thin, and to fight by their side in battles (75).
the power struggle in Iceland was only in a few cases decided on the battlefield, it was usually first and foremost a question of non-physical tactics and manoeuvres. The sagas mainly point to the shrewdness of the chieftains as an explanation of why some chieftains survived the power struggles while others failed. (76).
In sagas depicting Icelandic chieftains their appearance and physical attributes are less important than their mental qualities. (79).
Besides wisdom,
The sagas stress the generosity of the rulers. . . . Feasts and gifts were used to build up power and create or renew ties of friendship. Powerful secular leaders were described as vinsælir, which meant they had many friends. Amongst the rulers there was competition for the position of the most generous leader. The straightforward reason was that when a ruler was generous more men wanted to become his friends and supporters. (77-78).
These supporters included the relatives and kinsmen, which were called frændr (singular frændi, the participle of frjá meaning “to love,” which goes into English as friend). Supporters were thus those who loved their leaders. Leaders had to earn or win the love of their followers. When Ketill gathers his frændr at the beginning of the Laxdæla Saga, he consults with them about their course of action and lays out the options available and gives the reasons for his proposed decision and asks them for their support. They are allowed a chance to offer their counsel before a decision is finalized. It was a decision that the frændr could agree to and live with, or they would part ways.

The discussion Ketill initiates in Laxdæla Saga is interesting in another way. It centers on whether the group should submit to the Norwegian king and become his vassals. Ketill rejects this because, he argues, the group can expect no trausts from the king. The Old Norse term traust is the origin of the English term trust, but it means more than that. As E. V. Gordon points out, traust includes “help, protection, support, confidence” (Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, 2nd. ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957], 390). One could trust one’s leader because they would provide help, protection and support which in turn inspired confidence. The leader’s actions showed that he was trustworthy. The Old English cognate is treow, of which the modern form is true. The leader needed to be true to his followers if he expected his followers to be true to him.

Loyalty was understood to follow certain conventions:
If the reigning king was not capable of fulfilling his obligations towards his friends, they were entitled to change sides. . . . There are not critical remarks . . . about the ‘traitors’ who turned away. (79).
In the twelfth century, however, the rex iustus ideology was introduced to Norway. In this ideology the king was
a rex iustus and God’s representative on earth. As such the king has power over life and death for all his subjects. Those who disobey him violate God’s will. The king "er sva mioc miclaðr oc tighnaðr aiorðu at aller skulu sva luta oc niga til hans sæm til Guðs. hann hævir oc sva mycit vælldi at hann ræðr hværs lifdagum þærs er i hans riki er sva sæm han vill. Lætr þann dræpa er hann vill en þann liva er hann vill." (69.)
The king was now supposedly deriving his power from God and did not have to build it up from below anymore. This meant that the king’s personal qualities, ideologically, were less important. The king was now God’s representative on earth with power over life and death for all his subjects. (84-85).

As a result,
The kin-based aristocracy was transformed into a service aristocracy which received its power from the king, who in turn derived his from God. (85).
This meant that the aristocracy did not need to build up their power anymore through their ability to protect, and with the aid of gifts and feasts, since the support of the householders was no longer essential for their higher positions in society. Thus feasting and extensive exchange of gifts between chieftains and householders gradually declined. The strong and critical mutual vertical ties of friendship between chieftains and householders disappeared. Previously, the chieftains had been obliged to defend and assist their supporters. As the kin’s servants, however, they had to prosecute and punish those who had formerly been their friends. The duty of the aristocracy was to govern rather than to lead. These changes meant that the personal qualities which had been so important to build power previously now became more or less superfluous. (86).
The rex iustus ideology thus turn the aristocracy into managers instead of leaders. So, for the Vikings, leaders built their support through their personal qualities and because they had to support as well as be supported by their followers. The rex iustus ideology change that and they only had to please their superiors. Instead of protecting those under them, they persecuted them. The rex iustus ideology thus gave a new direction to the rulers who could now prosper because of their lack of leadership rather than be held back by it.

It is little wonder that so many of the sagas were written at this time, looking back on a time when Vikings were leaders rather than sycophantic servants.


All of this provides a helpful backdrop in considering some statements from the Doctrine and Covenants.

The idea with the rex iustus was that the ruler was the representative of God and should be followed by virtue of his position whether or not his position was just. This idea is rejected by God: “No power and influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” (D&C 121:41). Instead a leader is expected to develop those qualities of mind and character that will make people want to follow him (D&C 121:41-43) so that the follower “may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44). The individual who uses his appointed position to gratify his own pride and vain ambition “to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness” will find that there is an end to “the authority of that man.” (D&C 121:37). People will not willingly follow such an individual and thus he loses any authority over them. A leader cannot betray his followers and expect them to follow him; he will have lost his authority.

While in the Church the priesthood is given “by prophecy and by revelation” and thus from the top down (management), God expects those in such positions to build support from the bottom up (leadership). Thus in the Gospel, the leader is expected to serve not to be served. They must earn the trust of those they are supposed to lead rather than expect that it will come automatically by virtue of their position.

In the Church, we usually give a new leader the benefit of the doubt and are willing, at least initially, to follow them simply because of their position. Trust and goodwill, however, can be destroyed or erode away by failure to serve and support and persuade followers. If followers perceive that a priesthood leader is untrustworthy, then they will not trust him. Thus a leader needs to be true, not only to God and the Gospel, but also to the people he serves.

To have managers in the Church, rather than leaders, is not following the commandments that God has given us.