Leadership and Bilbo Baggins

By Guy Higgins

I first read The Hobbit in 1971 when I was in flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, and I’ve been a J.R.R. Tolkien fan ever since. I’ve read and re-read The Hobbit and, of course, The Lord of The Rings (LOTR for aficionados). I’ve also read The Silmarilion and his other lesser known works. Over the last week, I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films. While the films depart from the book in some areas, I think that they are reasonably true to Tolkien’s original vision in the one area I want to discuss in this post.

In case you haven’t read The Hobbit, it’s about Bilbo Baggins, a homebody, who lives in a comfy, rural locale, The Shire. He is conned into joining “an adventure” to help thirteen dwarves and a wizard recover the dwarves’ ancestral home from the dragon Smaug. Spoiler Alert – they succeed after many adventures and encounters with all kinds of good guys and bad guys.

Along the way, Bilbo (who was explicitly hired by the dwarves as a burglar) is put into a succession of situations in which he has to assume responsibility and take actions that are entirely out of character for the tidy, careful hobbit from The Shire. Sort of like Felix Unger of The Odd Couple finding himself in a Fast and Furious movie. While he’s never in a position of authority with his companion dwarves (or anyone else), he builds strong relationships with them by behaving with physical and, more importantly, moral courage.

As the story approaches a climax, Bilbo elects to leave the dwarves and forego a claim on fabulous wealth (one fourteenth share of, literally, a mountain of gold) rather than support Thorin Oakenshield, the leader (and grandson of the last king) of the dwarves, who has become obsessed with reclaiming the Arkenstone, the symbol of kingship among the dwarves. Thorin rejects an offered alliance because of an old slight and elects to refrain from joining a just battle in order to protect his claim to the throne. Bilbo cannot condone such a narrow, selfish position and mildly condemns Thorin for abandoning his honor in favor of the kingship before leaving the dwarves.

Bilbo has, by this time, so cemented his relationship with all of the dwarves (including Thorin) by his wise insights, physical courage and loyalty that he has become a leader of the group – even without any “official” authority. After Bilbo’s departure, Thorin comes to recognize the truth of Bilbo’s words and leads his tiny troop into battle.

What has this to do with a world in which there are no dragons, no Arkenstones, no dwarves, no hobbits and no wizards? It has to do with leading from positions without established authority – something that almost everyone encounters at some time. Some people, like Bilbo, will step up and lead well, and some people will not. That’s less important than what it takes for those who do step up to succeed. Like Bilbo, people who step up to “lead from below” will need to have established their credentials – have they behaved with integrity and courage? Have they shown good critical thinking and acted for the good? Have they worked to establish good, productive relationships with the people with whom they work? Without those credentials, it’s not likely that they will succeed when they find themselves in a situation that demands leadership and there’s no one leading.


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