Authentic Leadership: Ornamental Hermits and Why We Should Avoid Them

In the middle of the 18th century in Europe, it was fashionable to have your own personal hermit.

Sounds crazy, I know, but there it is.

How did this come about, and more importantly, what can it tell us about authentic leadership?  I was hoping you’d ask…


Authentic Leadership - Ornamental Hermits and Why We Should Avoid Them

Love My Garden, Love Me…

Well-to-do Europeans in the mid-1700s displayed their wealth with large estates, sprawling mansions, and grounds with formal gardens, carefully cropped hedges, geometric paths, and elaborate statuary.

It all seemed designed to suggest that the owner was sophisticated, cultured, and urbane enough to merit these ornate accessories.  The property was a reflection of its owner.  Everything was meant to impress.

As the rich vied to out-do each other, a counter-movement developed.  Why rely on superficial artifice when you could evoke a deeper sense of reflected wisdom?

Instead of manipulating nature, trend setters began to imitate it, as if to show themselves in tune with greater powers of the universe.  A naturalistic influence took hold.

Ornamental Hermits

Paths began to serpentine towards natural looking lakes.  Rustic clumps of trees dotted the landscape.  Owners even constructed “follies” resembling long-fallen ruins of stone and crumbling brick overcome by the power of nature.

To enhance the sense of mystique, some were even adding hermitages – caves or rough shacks made of stone or even roots where you might expect to see a wizened, reclusive hermit living.

I guess it was inevitable that some would decide that an actual real, live hermit on the premises would be a good idea.  Thus was born the ornamental hermit.

It was like having your own personal mountain-top guru living in the back yard.

Hermit for Hire

A common employment arrangement was for a seven-year period.  The hired hermit would receive an annual stipend as well as bed and board.  In exchange, he would live in the hermitage, and not bathe, shave, or cut his hair or fingernails.  He also could not leave the estate.

The owner may even require his ornamental hermit to make appearances during dinner parties to impress and delight his well-to-do guests.

But owners soon discovered that there were pitfalls to having their own ornamental hermit.  Of course they cost money to maintain.

More troubling was that they were not necessarily reliable.  Three weeks after hiring one, the Honorable Charles Hamilton discovered that his “hermit” made a practice of hanging out with the locals down at the village pub.

Kind of takes the mystery out of it.  We can chuckle at this strange fad now, but are we that much different?

Modern Ornamental Hermits:

Sometimes I think we tend to gather around us ornamental hermits of our own.   In our efforts to lead we can be in danger of affecting the appearance of leadership rather than leading authentically.

Here are some of the ways we might be doing that, along with what might be a better path to authentic leadership.

Propping.  Like trotting out our hermit for display, heavy reliance on title and position to prop ourselves up as leaders can mark us as inauthentic.

Remember way back growing up when your sibling said, “I’m the oldest, so you have to do what I say?” Kind of like that.  In the military we called it “pulling rank” – best used as a last resort.

When we continually have to rely on an external, artificial construct to convince people to follow, they may have to comply, but will rarely become believers.

Authentic Leadership:  Focus on the why of the team and how it fits the overall vision, then follow through by setting a personal example.

Micromanaging.  Charles Hamilton learned that he could not control every action of his hermit, and we shouldn’t attempt to do that with our teams.  Whether we micromanage a task because it’s in our comfort zone or because we don’t trust or haven’t developed others to do the job, the more we micromanage, the less authentic our leadership becomes.

Authentic LeadershipDelegate tasks in ways that develop other’s capabilities and grows mutual trust.  Give people as much independence and latitude you can.

Credit-taking.  Having an ornamental hermit was less about the hermit, and more about how the owner could take credit for having one.  In the same way, stealing credit is a warning sign that our leadership lacks authenticity.

Authentic Leadership:  Look for every opportunity to pass the credit to teammates who legitimately contributed to success.  Bonus if you are able to highlight critical support work done by those who normally don’t get a lot of recognition.

Blame-casting.  Just as owners hope to appear wiser by associating with their ornamental hermit, they try to avoid anything that may detract from that image by casting blame for failures onto others.

Authentic Leadership:  When something goes wrong within the team, be big enough to absorb the heat, and protect those who made honest efforts to do the right thing.  In this way we earn loyalty and even greater efforts in the future.

Down-Talking.  The common media portrayal of leaders is often as brash tyrants who lead through fear and focus on finding fault.  In real life, this approach is likely to build resentment, disenchantment, and disengagement.

Authentic Leadership:  Look for what is going right and put the emphasis there.  Encourage those who are doing it right, and support the efforts of others to learn and improve.

Authentic Leadership – The Takeaway

The ornamental hermit fad died out fairly quickly, I’m glad to say.

It’s not as though any of the hired hermits actually had any life-altering revelations to share.  And even if they did, would the sort of person who hires an ornamental hermit really take the time to listen?

Instead of relying on props we think make us appear to be leaders, it’s better to invest time in cultivating the real thing:  building relationships, developing others, growing trust, leading by personal example.  Those are the attributes of the authentic leader.

Authentic Leadership - Ornamental Hermits and Why We Should Avoid Them - Reclining Gnome

And in pursuing authenticity, perhaps fewer of our people will be inclined to disengage like hermits, and instead work harder for the team.

It’s interesting to note that the ornamental hermits aren’t entirely gone.  Today we can still find representations of them in the form of garden gnomes.

They add a hint of mysticism at a fraction of the cost.  And we’re not likely to find them down at the local pub any time soon.

And there’s nothing wrong with having a little statue in the garden, so long as we’re not trying to impress anybody with it.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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