The Origin of The Paradoxical Commandments
The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent Keith in 1968, when he was 19, a sophomore at Harvard College. They were part of The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, his first booklet for high school student leaders. Here is how it all came about.
As a senior at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, Kent was heavily involved in student government. He was student body president and also president of the Honolulu High School Association. He was excited about the challenges of leadership and good leadership techniques.
Because Hawaii did not have a student council leadership workshop to train student council leaders, Kent founded the Hawaii Student Leadership Institute, which held its first session in the summer of 1966. This was the first leadership workshop for high school student leaders that was founded and run entirely by high school students.
Kent went on to attend Harvard. During his four years as an undergraduate there, he gave more than 150 speeches at high schools, student leadership workshops, and state student council conventions in eight states. These were the turbulent sixties, when student activists were seizing buildings, throwing rocks at police, and shouting down opponents. Kent provided an alternative voice. In his public speaking, Kent encouraged students to care about others, and to work through the system to achieve change. One thing he learned was students didn't know how to work through the system to bring about change. Some of them also tended to give up quickly when they faced difficulties or failures. They needed deeper, longer-lasting reasons to keep trying.
"I saw a lot of idealistic young people go out into the world to do what they thought was right, and good, and true, only to come back a short time later, discouraged, or embittered, because they got negative feedback, or nobody appreciated them, or they failed to get the results they had hoped for." recalls Keith. "I told them that if they were going to change the world, they had to really love people, and if they did, that love would sustain them. I also told them that they couldn't be in it for fame or glory. I said that if they did what was right and good and true, they would find meaning and satisfaction, and that meaning and satisfaction would be enough. If they had the meaning, they didn't need the glory."
In his sophomore year at Harvard, Kent began writing a booklet for high school student leaders that addressed both the how and the why of leading change. The booklet was titled The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, and it was published by Harvard Student Agencies in 1968. The Paradoxical Commandments were part of Chapter Two, entitled "Brotherly What?"
Kent M. Keith (spring 1969)
"I laid down the Paradoxical Commandments as a challenge," Keith said. "The challenge is to always do what is right and good and true, even if others don't appreciate it. You have to keep striving, no matter what, because if you don't, many of the things that need to be done in our world will never get done."
He revised the booklet and a new edition, The Silent Revolution in the Seventies, was published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in 1972. Somewhere around 30,000 copies of the two editions were sold in the late sixties and early seventies. Kent also wrote two other booklets for student councils. The Silent Majority: The Problem of Apathy and the Student Council was published by the NASSP in 1971, and Now You're in the Middle: A Handbook for the Student Council Adviser was published by NASSP in 1972.
Immediately after publication of The Silent Revolution, the Paradoxical Commandments were used by student leaders in speeches and student newspaper articles. Over the past 30 years, they have spread throughout the country and around the world. See Sightings of the Paradoxical Commandments.
The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent Keith as part of the second chapter of his booklet, The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, published by Harvard Student Agencies in 1968. The booklet was written for high school student leaders. Here is the full text of the chapter:
CHAPTER TWO: Brotherly What?
This book makes a pretty big assumption. It assumes that you care. I mean, really. Not just because it's fashionable to appear concerned for those who are "less fortunate." Not because you know that pretending to care is going to earn you the title of Mr. Nice. Not because the redhead in the next row loves charitable people. Not because it's a good way to get attention in the public spotlight. No. Something deep, something sincere and real. Being interested in what others think, how they feel, what's important to them, what they need. Being sensitive to the people around you; and when they need something, wanting to help. You might call it brotherly love, a concern for all, people-consciousness.
A lot of sentimental hocus-pocus? Maybe. Personally, I am convinced that unless you really care for the people you are going to lead, you'll never do anything meaningful - except by accident. People-consciousness is a definite prerequisite for good leadership. If you aren't sensitive to the needs of the people you
lead, how will you ever be able to answer those needs? Caring is a practical necessity. If you are going to do right by people, you have to be concerned with their welfare.
I would like to enter a plea, here. People-centered student councils need people-conscious leaders. If you find that you are quite indifferent about what the student council does and whether or not it helps or hurts people, please get out. Resign. Your leadership is apt to do more harm than good: it will exist in a vacuum, or be irrelevant, or even be antagonistic to the needs of your peers. If you don't care, you're not going to help anyone. So unless you have a deep feeling for the welfare of the people you are supposed to lead, please, stop leading.
It is not easy to be people-conscious all the time; it is not easy to keep student council affairs from being self-centered instead of people-centered. After all, our own interests are naturally in the fore, and it is a real effort to keep them subordinated. For example: how willing are you to support a project that you feel has great value but is considered ridiculous by the student council? So often, sensitive members of the council do not speak up because they are afraid of "making fools of themselves" by standing alone on an issue. Which do you place first, your own popularity and prestige, or the meaningfulness attached to helping people? People-consciousness is not easy to come by, and often hard to put into effect. You have to really care, to make it work.
The idea of really caring for others has an important effect on the other side of the coin: the leader himself. In The Silent Revolution, caring is necessary not only because you must care in order to do relevant and meaningful things; it is also necessary to make your leadership durable. A deep concern for others is
one of the few motivations, I'm convinced, that is powerful enough to compensate for the sacrifice - as well as provide the inspiration - for strong and purposeful leadership. Without it, you may be very unhappy and short-lived as a leader.
Essentially, the price tag on the Silent Revolution is that you must give up a lot of ego-satisfaction. As you will see later, you must reconcile yourself to being less noisy, less dramatic, less heroic- and more of a behind-the-scenes mover of events. In the Silent Revolution you must give of your time and effort because
you care and want to give, not because you are expecting glory and prominence in return. It is very conceivable, of course, that if you really do something for your student body, they will respect you for it and be glad they elected you. You can be selfless and popular, but popularity must not be your goal. Do things
because you believe in them, and the simple satisfaction of having achieved them will be enough. (Applause is great, but it's only the frosting, and we've got to bake cakes.) If you're in it for other people, then helping them will give you satisfaction that having your name in lights could never compete with!
Lack of praise or recognition is often a result of using the Silent Revolution. It is comparatively easy to bear; it is a simple kind of self-denial which allows the achievement of greater meaning and satisfaction. Other situations are less easy. Being attacked and mistreated by the people you are trying to help, for example,
is a possibility much harder to stomach than a mere lack of recognition. It hurts in particular when you really care for the people who are attacking you: if you didn't care, you could shrug it off with indifference. And yet, a deep concern for people makes it possible to understand that attack with compassion, and to
keep helping. This kind of paradoxical situation can occur often. Indeed, we might list some "Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership:"
You'll find that there is no such thing as going through a Silent Revolution just for fun. It's seldom fun. It's tiring, ridiculously nerve-wracking, demoralizing, and seemingly impossible. You've got to be deeply committed to people - all of them, not just the ones who are nice to you - in order to go through with it. If
you're in it for other people, you may not always succeed, but you can be happy in the knowledge that you are doing things which are as meaningful as possible - for both you and the people you're helping. You're working at full potential, so there can be no regrets. You're doing the most you can, as best you can.
- People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
- If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
- If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
- The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
- Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
- The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
- People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
- What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
- People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
- Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.
One thing can't be overemphasized here: this approach does not require saints, nor does it make martyrs. It requires conscientious leaders, and provides a meaningful leadership style; it requires sensitive leaders, and provides an effective outlet for that sensitivity. Why a saint? Silent Revolutions simply need
people who are very human. And why a martyr? Silent Resolutions demand a lot, but they give a lot in return.
Personally, I'm convinced that if you are helping people for your sake and not theirs, you'll never be satisfied: either the "return" in personal glorification won't come, or if it does, it won't for long appease a constantly growing ego. If you're out for glory you'll never have enough, and you'll never be happy. On the other hand, if you really care and want to help, then a lack of recognition is no great tragedy. To the contrary, it can be a very satisfying approach - you do things because they are valid in themselves, not because they are calculated to bring so many votes and so much glory. If meaning and significance have anything to do with happiness - and I think they do! - then the Silent Revolutionary is one of the happiest leaders around. Who's a martyr?
Silent Revolutions can give deep-feeling leaders a deeply satisfying leadership experience. You can buy glory and recognition: you can't buy meaning. Satisfaction has to come from inside. Newspaper headlines can't give it to you. The price of leading a Silent Revolution is high, but well worth paying. To pay it back with interest, try some real brotherly love. It can be the happiest thing that ever happens to you.