Leadership Lessons from Don Quixote

I’ve learned something about leadership from the novel Don Quixote from two unexpected recent events involving leaders I know well.

First was Newell Smith’s retirement address as Superintendent of the Philadelphia District Church of the Nazarene in May.

Early on he mentioned how the novel Don Quixote by the 16thCentury writer Cervantes has been an inspiration since his college days as a literature major.

The fictional knight-errant Don Quixote was a dreamer fighting for justice, civility and chivalry – to right wrongs and punish evil.  In the story some thought he was goofy if not crazy – tilting at windmills of all things.

Near the end of his address, having talked about his personal aspirations and dreams for his post-retirement life, Newell did something that surprised everyone; something he had never done before and no one knew he could do.  He sang a solo – To Dream the Impossible Dream from The Man of La Mancha, a Broadway musical based on the Don Quixote story.

Before the last note the crowd was on its feet in a standing ovation.   Not simply because Newell dared to talk and sing about his own dreams for making this world a better place, but, I think, because all of us were inspired by what our dreams might be if we had the courage to talk and sing about them.

The second event was a Leading To Serve sailing cruise in June off the coast of Spain for 25 Kenyon leaders in a flotilla of four sailboats conducted by captain James Copple, the principle of SAI and Servant-Forge.  This was one of several action learning cruises Jim has organized to mentor young leaders.


Leadership lessons from Don Quixote was the assigned topic for discussions at sea: how imagination and vision help shape our work and our lives.    The world’s problems, they observed, are similar to Cervantes’ time – political corruption, economic despair and hopelessness of the masses.

Jim said that they also talked about Don Quixote’s chivalry.  One of the young men said, ‘I now see that my role is to advocate for and even protect the women in my world.’

 We could use more of that in this @metoo era.

Newell Smith, Jim Copple and these young Kenyan leaders believe there is hope for a better world when men and women begin to follow such dreams.


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1 Response to Leadership Lessons from Don Quixote

  1. Bob Sloan says:

    ​Hi Tom:

    I read your most recent blog on Don Quixote with interest. While I do not have a direct response it caused me to consider my recent experience in Peru. We have had the opportunity to travel to many third world countries and I am always amazed at how local people in poor countries are able to make a living with so little. In fact, it seems like the people with the least are sometimes the happiest. I am not sure why that is but perhaps it is rural living vs city living and the seemingly lack of envy or pursuit of more material goods. That is not to say that everyone would like more security, more money, more food, clothing and basic goods such as refrigeration and electricity.

    At the same time, it always a bit of a shock to return to the US and see how much everyone has (even the poorest of the poor seem to have all the basic necessities to include cell phones, electricity, food, transportation, clothing, TV, etc. Yet, few are satisfied; all of us take for granted the basic infrastructure of toilet facilities, toilet paper, soap to wash with, towels to wipe your hands, with, air-conditioning, schools, transportation, food in grocery stores, etc.

    When you return to the States you are struck by the bickering, political grandstanding, arguments, bordering on hatred, resentment of our fellow citizens. It looks like the rich are fighting among themselves (as compared to the worlds poor) for even more. Are we really that kind of ungrateful people who seem to not understand how much we really have or how much we waste? It does make you evaluate your life and how much “stuff” you really need vs. the important things like health, family, friends, opportunity and thanksgiving. Just a few thoughts and perhaps an effort to reorder the priorities in life.

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