The pen of MFA founder William Hirth was fiercest when it encouraged farmers to look at their circumstances and organize to step up to the challenges of the day. In this essay, one of his collected After Thoughts, which often ran on the front page of The Missouri Farmer, Hirth sifted through history and current events to enjoin his readers to lead themselves into a more powerful position through cooperative action. It was printed in The Missouri Farmer May 1, 1917.
As the great Farm Club movement of Missouri grows—and rest assured it is forging ahead and study the splendid local leadership which frequently comes to the surface in the different communities. From the days of Julius Caesar on down to the present hour, men have unconsciously chosen and followed leaders—for however intelligent men may be, they are powerless without leadership, and thus the organizations which are doing the finest work are those in which some one man has come to be regarded as the spokesman of those who stand behind him.
But real leadership is a rare quality. By this I do not mean that it must wear the trappings of superiority, or that it needs express itself in words of faultless diction. On the contrary, there are men following the plow and the corn planter in the fields of Missouri today who are equal in the quality of dormant leadership to those who happen sit upon the thrones of mighty Captains of Industry. When Abraham Lincoln first pretended to National leadership, the polished Seward looked on with pitying contempt. And so time and again in the early days the crusty old Stanton thundered and swore at the ungainly “Rail-splitter” from Illinois—but when the assassin’s bullet had accomplished its baleful mission, and when the old War Secretary stood looking down into the calm face of his dead Chieftain, he sobbed out, “There lies the greatest natural leader of men the world has ever known.”
But real leadership always wears the livery of modesty. And thus when Stanton had refused a place to one of Lincoln’s closest personal friends, the President said to this friend with that rare twinkle, which often crept into his eyes, “Well, you see I haven’t got much influence with this administration.”
But while clothed in the garb of modesty, real leadership must also be firm, once an issue is raised—for weaklings are never tolerated when the eyes of men flash fire. Thus, on another occasion, Lincoln had placed before his cabinet a matter of great moment on which they vigorously opposed him. After threshing it over at some length, the President suddenly exclaimed,
“Well, all in favor, say Aye”—and only the high-pitched voice of Lincoln shouted “Aye!”
In a flash he came back with, “All opposed say no!,” and all the cabinet members chorused, “No!”
Then a quizzical smile spread over his roughhewn face, and turning to his private secretary he quietly said, “The Ayes have it,” and decisiveness as firm and final as the rumble of distant thunder. Brains, modesty, gentleness, but withal firmness—these are the qualities of which real leaders are made. But of no less consequence are the men behind every leader, and the thought I here have in mind is admirably expressed in an anonymous poem*, “The Law of the Jungle, “ which runs as follows:
“Now is the law of the jungle,
As old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that keeps it will prosper,
But the wolf that breaks it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
So the law runneth forward and back,
For the strength of the pack is the wolf
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
And so as men gird up their loins for collective action, let them bear the above law in mind—let them realize that no great movement can hope to succeed without clear-visioned and responsible leadership, and that “ too many cooks spoil the broth.”
So let those who aspire to leadership remember that if they would attain such preferment they must win their spurs by meeting all comers, and thus demonstrate that their qualities of leadership can successfully meet the challenge of those who vie with them for the distinction of “leading the pack.”
Let them remember that true leadership comes from the bottom, and not from the top. The law of leadership among men is no less ruthless than that of the jungle, except that the hearts of the former must be aflame with a definite purpose. If Lincoln towered head and shoulders above his rivals in the pre-Civil War period, this was true not only because he was an intellectual giant, but because more effectively than any other man he pointed out the infamy of an institution that had fastened clanking chains on the ankles of several million black men.
And, in like manner, had not Washington been the embodiment of the revolt of the Colonists against British tyranny as was true of no other man of his time, who knows but what the Union Jack would be floating over our country today? If through the years ours has become the greatest constitutional fact that as a people we realize the need of great leaders, and follow them when they appear in our national life.