Friday, April 29, 2011

Leadership and Thresholds -- the American Sea Change

Thresholds and Leadership

Thresholds are events that change world history, passages through which humankind works its way, effecting a permanent change. There needs to be more research to show how certain historical thresholds have changed leadership. For example, when Romans overthrew a hated Etruscan king, those who were now elected to lead the Roman Republic exhibited much different leadership styles and traits than the Etruscan monarchs had. One of the first consuls, Publius, ruled with humility and eagerness to please the people. He set a powerful example for future republican leaders.

Sea Change in Leadership

The founding of the United States was another threshold that changed world history. It also brought about a sea change in leadership. Prior to the American founding, there were relatively few leaders in proportion to the population of any given nation. Most of the Old World's leaders ruled through conquest or dynastic succession. The rise of the U.S. increased the absolute and relative number of leaders in the West as well as changed the rules of the game. "We the People" were no longer hierarchical subjects of a king, but equal citizens of a constitutional republic who enjoyed inherent rights, as well as the opportunity to pursue happiness as we wished. Most American leaders were not "to the manor born" but worked their way "from the bottom up." So prepare to be surprised by the people around you: Today's followers may well be tomorrow's leaders.

The frontier played a special role in developing American leadership. It called forth women and men who had to meet innumerable challenges before local, state, or national government could extend its effective reach, even for day-to-day defense. In this challenging new environment, self reliance, the cultivation of freedom under the rule of law, and a culture of democratization took root. These values have had a profound impact on who leads whom, when, and how, in America.

The three great sectors of American public life have reinforced this sea change in leadership. In the political arena, candidates standing for election must learn consensus-building skills, the art of compromise, accommodation, flexibility, and respect for rules of the game. If you lose the debate or the vote, you accept the outcome and live to fight another day. In the marketplace, the providers of goods and services have to be sensitive to people's needs and wants, offering what is socially needed and desirable -- or risk financial failure. In civil society, there are all kinds of opportunities for people to volunteer and take a lead improving the lives of others. All three of these sectors -- political, economic, and voluntary -- reinforce one another. Each sector requires ethical, effective leaders. The effect has been to dramatically increase the number of leadership opportunities in the U.S., as well as to democratize and decentralize leadership.

In America, the tyrannical type does not do well in the public square -- either in the political arena, marketplace, or civil society. Throughout our history, people have had to conceal and channel their libido dominandi. In effect they have to come across as ruling less and leading more. It means that a lot of what a leader has to do is genuinely connect with others. True leaders -- the Real Deal -- must make a better impression than the host of pretenders out there. They have to win others over in an authentic way. A leader wins others over through good people skills, integrity, hard work, smart presentation, and mastery of the practical arts of leading.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

America's Fin de Siecle (1990)

America’s Fin de Siècle: End of a Century or a Civilization?

by Gleaves Whitney

(This review was originally published in the Summer 1990 issue of the University Bookman and appears here with their permission.)

The Culture We Deserve
by Jacques Barzun. Edited by Arthur Krystal. Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1989, 187 pp., $18.

Politically America may have won the Cold War, but culturally she has entered the fin de siècle. Despair is chic among youth. Recently a television news hour reported that pop singers feel rather downbeat about America, their lyrics adding up to an endless tale of woe. High culture, too, is in a lamentable state. So-called artists are making headlines with an American flag laid out on a museum floor and a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. Most scholars in the social sciences and humanities, meanwhile, are learning more and more about less and less in endless rounds of trivial pursuit; apparently they’ve abandoned all pretense of speaking to an audience outside the ramparts of the academy. Given such conditions, is it rash to ask whether America’s cultural decline is merely a temporary ebb that will spawn new creative energies in the arts and higher learning, or whether the present decay signals something more foreboding—the disintegration of American culture and civilization?

This question underlies Jacques Barzun’s latest collection of essays, The Culture We Deserve. Few historian-critics are so well qualified to diagnose American culture as Barzun, who spent over five decades as a student and professor at Columbia University, and in the process earned a place alongside the most esteemed men of letters in the West. Since mid-century, generations of undergraduates have become acquainted with him through such well-known works as Darwin, Marx, Wagner and The Modern Researcher.

The twelve essays in the present volume are occasional pieces composed mostly during the 1980s. In them Barzun explores, with characteristic élan, the state of the fine arts, the illiberality of the liberal arts, the decay of modern language, and the general malaise that has settled over humane letters. Professional optimists will not like this book. Barzun’s diagnosis of American culture is blunt: the patient is sick and the tumor is in the pink of health. At moments he seems to set his gaze beyond America to some future civilization that will have the talent and confidence, the vision and stamina, to restore high culture. He reminds us that “Civilization is not identical with our civilization.”

The stench of cultural decay is perhaps nowhere more noticeable than in the nation’s seats of higher learning. One problem is that the academy, in its attempt to be all things to all people, has for a long time conflated professional training with liberal education. The results have been disappointing. Our graduates receive bachelors’ degrees, yet remain culturally and ethically illiterate. They may have mastered a computer language or two, but cannot read Shakespeare or even The Federalist papers with any fluency.

The source of this problem lies in the pervasive elective system, made popular by Charles Eliot at Harvard at the end of the last century. The elective system encourages students to treat their education merely as a smorgasbord of offerings. Often little more than impressionistic judgements based on course descriptions guide undergraduates through their curricula. The easiest courses, or those with the “sexiest” descriptions, or most popular professor, draw the largest crowds.

Liberal education, however, is more than accumulating credit hours at random, with a smattering of ancient philosophy here, and a dollop of medieval literature there, and a pinch of modern history elsewhere. A coherent sequence of courses, taken in the right order over a four-year period, must be required if students are to be introduced to the best authors, books, and ideas of the West in an historical and logical manner. Such an education tends to be as formative as it is informative. Its value lies in inculcating a sensibility to the good, the true, and the beautiful, without which life declines into meaningless tedium.

But—educators cry—is not this sort of education elitist? Does it not run counter to the goals of American democracy, committed as it is to liberty and equality? Not at all, retorts Barzun: “Such arguments are foolishly inconsistent. A person is not a democrat thanks to his ignorance of literature and the arts.”

Leading the academy in its mass exodus across the Styx are, ironically, the very persons to whom our intellectual heritage has been entrusted—the professors. Not all professors are culpable, of course, but in the social sciences and humanities departments of our leading graduate schools, many of the best and brightest have become unabashedly politicized and excruciatingly specialized. They write to a small coterie of like-minded experts and use jargon that shields them from intelligent lay criticism. Today it is not uncommon to find philosophers who have shunned the serious pursuit of ethics and metaphysics, historians who have eschewed engaging narrative in favor of “retrospective sociology,” and literary critics who have abandoned their traditional role as “midwife” to the text, in order to pursue “deconstruction,” which amounts to an act of epistemological terrorism.

Moreover, politicization of the various academic disciplines is now so commonplace that avant-garde scholarship can be downright banal. Feminist English professors declare that literature = politics. Legal scholars of the critical legal studies (CLS) persuasion say that law = politics. Intellectual historians who pride themselves for being on the cutting edge argue that history = rhetoric.

In this environment, one casualty of university education has been pleasure—the pleasure of learning. Barzun insists that great works of history, literature, and art are best comprehended by what Pascal called the esprit de finesse, or intuitive understanding. The mind must first seize upon the character of the whole before it analyzes the parts. But undergraduates are taught to approach books with a toolbox of analytical methods and theories. The ideal is to become a method-monger. Yet method mongering robs one of the pleasure of reading a text. It diminishes openness to discovery by requiring students to squeeze a creative work into the vise of the most up-to-date method—extracted no doubt from an unreadable journal article.

Another casualty has been the pursuit of wisdom. (Why does the very notion make us blush?) It is a noble if difficult goal. For without practical wisdom, which concerns a person’s moral development, and speculative wisdom, which concerns his comprehension of first principles, man cannot reach his potential. Regrettably, wisdom has taken a back seat to vocational and professional training in many undergraduate programs. Colleges must justify their programs by crude market criteria (supply and demand) or their putative usefulness to a technocratic society. It is not unusual for administrators to dilute a meaty liberal education with the thin broth of professional training. In this atmosphere of compromise and misplaced priorities, the humanities fail to humanize. Culture is converted into industry. “Scientific” knowledge in literature, history, and the arts proliferates but adds little to the nation’s stock of wisdom.

How, asks Barzun, can culture free itself from the morass of tedious and politicized scholarship? “The answer,” he ventures, “is simple but not agreeable to face. At some point the overexpansion of the present scheme will bring it to collapse from its own weight. It will begin to look as futile as it really is. The Alexandrian textualists came to grief; the scholastics of the Middle Ages faded away. Similarly the forces of fatigue and boredom will do their work to bring on stagnation and decadence; as happened to the great English universities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The idea of a university will not die; it will hibernate, and on reawakening will suggest to its renovators the plain duties they should take on.”

Barzun is at his best when he levels his gimlet eye at the current confusion in the humanities. His insights into the decline of scholarship (especially among the faculties of history and English), of language (ironically at the hands of the linguists), and of criticism (now so laden with method and theory that it obscures rather than clarifies) are trenchant. His call to rethink our approach to the humanities desperately needs heeding. If open-minded regents, professors, graduate students, and undergraduates read these essays, a reformation in higher education might break out.

But the book’s diagnosis of cultural decay is not uniformly compelling. Barzun falls short in his brief forays into metaphysics and, more particularly, religion. These are among the topics of an essay titled “The Bugbear of Relativism”, which fortunately is buried in the middle of the book. It is a meandering, disappointing piece. In “Bugbear” Barzun wants to say that the rise of relativism is not so much the cause of the current decay as a consequence. Barzun just cannot bring himself to entertain the idea that the cultural confusion he so bemoans might be the result, in large part, of modern man’s metaphysical malaise and religious distemper.

Yet this alternative is not implausible. Philosophers as disparate as Nietzsche and Maritain have observed that modern man is pessimistic, sick, disoriented. He has no coherent vision of his relation to himself, to others, to nature, or to the divine. The world seems emptied of the principles that once enlivened it. Further, when modern man began losing faith in the transcendental, the ramifications for culture were unsettling. Artists and critics alike succumbed to the romantic “cult of creativity” which, because of its agonistic impulses, more often resembled a cult of destruction. Since Barzun himself avers that “the essence of culture is interpenetration”, surely it is not strange to suggest that the spiritual malaise which has waxed since the seventeenth century might be a major cause of cultural decay. For without assent to a humane religion, man is set adrift in a hostile sea of impersonal forces. His life signifies little. His soul grows sick. Nausea of the Sartrean sort is his lot. The resulting confusion and despair are bound to manifest themselves in “sick” cultural artifacts. The discomfiting question is, can a culture retain its confidence and vitality after suffering from such a disease for three or four generations? Unfortunately, Barzun’s answer is unsatisfactory. His commitment to pragmatism—he is an admitted disciple of William James—blinds him to the religious etiology of modern decadence.

This is sad, if only because the other observations in the book are excellent. Indeed, The Culture We Deserve is a welcome balance to all the current talk of America’s relative economic decline vis-a-vis powers like Japan and a uniting Germany. While economic decline is a matter of serious concern, cultural decadence should worry us even more. The diminution of military and economic empire involves a raft of external conditions, many of which are beyond America’s control. The burden of decadence, by contrast, falls squarely on America’s own shoulders. There are no foreign scapegoats. Decadence literally means “falling away” from previous norms, values, and visions. It refers to the internal, cultural disposition of a people, to its arts and schools and universities, to its confidence in being a cultivating force—all things which lie within the province of American policy-makers, educators, and citizens.

American culture is surely decadent. Its decay is palpable to any sensitive observer who reads the feuilleton section of the local newspaper or attends a university. But is our decadence terminal? Is our civilization on a collision course with extinction? Can we say, with Verlaine, “Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence”? That we cannot yet know; no crystal ball makes haste to help us. In the meantime, Jacques Barzun’s collection of essays challenges us to ask ourselves whether we deserve better.

Gleaves Whitney was, at the time of writing, a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan. He is currently a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center and director of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

American Founding -- overview

The American Founding

History's spotlight glanced across the east coast of North America between 1761 and 1815. These "times that try men's souls" saw a great nation emerge from more than a half century of conflict, including heated constitutional debates across the Atlantic; severe economic privation and depression; the dogs of war unleashed in two struggles for independence against the British, as well as in serious conflicts with the Barbary peoples, French, and Indians; the drafting of 13 state constitutions, articles of confederation, and a national frame of government; and testing the civic habits and economic policies that would establish a new republic in a world of ancient monarchies. Politically we had to be recognized by the powers of the earth. More practically we had to be geographically large enough, culturally unified enough, and economically viable enough to make it in a hostile world.

To what extent did the American effort to found a new nation amount to a revolution? It's a controverted question. Some argue that the American cause was "a revolution not made, but prevented." Others proclaim that the American Revolution inspired more lasting, positive changes to the human estate than any similar upheaval.

A Story in Three Acts: Overview

To deal with such an epic event, it is necessary to break the American founding down into intelligible parts. For our purposes, the founding unfolded in three acts:
  1. Debate over the English constitution, from February 24, 1761 (John Adams observing James Otis in court), to April 19, 1775. Americans felt increasingly aggrieved because they didn't believe the King and Parliament were respecting their ancient rights as Englishmen. When the debates over ideas, rights, and politics could not be peaceably settled in assemblies, courtrooms, and at court, war eventually broke out.
  2. Armed conflict: For Americans to live by the ideas they believed in, they would have to win on the battlefield. The Wars for Independence unfolded in three bursts of violence over a 40 year time of trial (a good Biblical number): Part I was defined by the Brits' Northern Campaign, breaking out in Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and ending with the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777; then there was a pause in the action. Part II was defined by the Southern Campaign beginning slowly in 1778 to Yorktown on October 19, 1781; then there was a pause in the action, and a temporary peace settlement reached on September 3, 1783. Taking the long view, I see Part III as the final military campaign needed to confirm independence. It was the War of 1812, sometimes called the Second War for Independence since America needed to fight this war to maintain her independence from Britain. (Wars are not over until the vanquished say they're over.) Taking the long view, armed conflict was intermittent over four decades. Armed conflict between the Brits and Americans finally ends after 40 years, when the British surrendered on Chalmette Battlefield at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815. Note: there had to be a Second American Revolution (the Election of 1800 and subsequent inauguration) and a Second War for Independence (War of 1812) before both the Brits and Americans believed it was over.
  3. Establishing the new republic from May 10, 1776, through March 4, 1801 and beyond, when newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson explained why the Election of 1800 was a second American Revolution. In the intervening period, statesmen composed the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Northwest Ordinance, and U.S. Constitution. The tone the third president set was significant because Jefferson did not seek revenge in a divided nation. (See Mancall, lecture 35.) Over the next decades, the making of the new republic continued to be defined by a long frontier in space and time -- the Louisiana Purchase -- which pointed the nation west, and by several significant Supreme Court decisions.

Myths and Speculation

So much we "know" about the American founding isn't so, and much that's little known should be better so. I have no intention of debunking the founders, but the truth makes them more human, and thus more accessible, than hagiography or hero worship.

1. The Founders, arguably the greatest generation of political minds ever, were hardly of one mind. In fact, they frequently sparred with one another. I get the question, What would America's founders think of this or that issue today? One of the statesmen at the Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson, refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Adams accused.... 16 of the 55 framers refused to sign the Constitution; it was not just big states vs. little states but also slavery that mostly divided them.

2. Not only did they not agree with one another on a number of basic issues, but a lot of them did not even like each other. It is ironic that on Mount Rushmore Washington and Jefferson are stuck next to each other for eternity. Both George and Martha Washington ended up with a deep dislike of Thomas Jefferson. Martha called Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind.” When Jefferson visited her at Mount Vernon before he became president, Martha said that it was the second worst day of her life—the first being the day her husband died.

Jefferson and Adams spent more than a decade totally estranged from one another before they reconciled enough to pen one of the most remarkable letter exchanges ever.

John Adams couldn't stand Tom Paine.;

3. Don't kid yourself thinking all the founders had sterling characters. Too many accounts of the American founding are filled with tales of buckled-shoed Puritans or boring committee men or prim and proper commercial types. But many had -- shall we say -- colorful lives.

Consider Gouverneur Morris, the "penman of the Constitution," who had a conspicuous limp. Ever wonder why he limped? A good hint comes from the subtitle of Rick Brookheiser's biography in which he calls Morris a "rake." In 1780, at age twenty-eight, Morris's left leg was shattered and replaced with a wooden pegleg. Morris's public account for the loss of his leg was that it happened in a carriage accident, but there is evidence that this was a tall tale concocted to cover for a dalliance with a woman, during which he jumped from a window to escape a jealous husband. Morris was well-known throughout much of his life for having many affairs on both sides of the Atlantic, with both married and unmarried women. He even shared a mistress with the famous French foreign minister Talleyrand. Knowing of Morris's dalliances gives new meaning to his phrase in the Constitution's Preamble about "domestic tranquility"!

Luther Martin is humorously called "Luther Martini" by scholars of the American Revolution because he was such a lush.

4. Although George Washington preferred to be called "general" from 1775 to the end of his life, and was always painted posing in his uniform, the truth is, he was not a great battlefield general. Washington lost more battles than he won. His greatness lay less in battlefield brilliance—he committed some major strategic blunders, e.g., at Brandywine Creek—than in the ability to hold his ragtag army intact for more than eight years, keeping the flame of revolution alive. Washington was also innovative as a general (as he was as a farmer). He ran his own spy network during the war and was often the only one privy to the full scope of secret operations against the British. He anticipated many techniques of modern espionage, including the use of misinformation and double agents.

Then there are the myths.

1. George Washington never had wooden teeth. He wore dentures that were made of either walrus or elephant ivory and were fitted with real human teeth. Over time, as the ivory got cracked and stained, it resembled the grain of wood. Washington may have purchased some of his teeth from his own slaves.

There are a great number of fascinating things people think significant about the American founding:

1. Take George Washington. That Washington was childless proved a great boon to his career. Because he had no heirs, Americans didn’t worry that he might be tempted to establish a hereditary monarchy. Indeed, many religious Americans believed that God had deliberately deprived Washington of children so that he might serve as Father of His Country.
2. Washington stands out as the only founder who freed his slaves. Like their countrymen, however, the Washingtons had a complex relationship with slavery and acted out of mixed motives. When the temporary capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington brought six or seven slaves to the new presidential mansion. Under a Pennsylvania abolitionist law, slaves who stayed continuously in the state for six months were automatically free. To prevent this, Washington, secretly coached by his Attorney General, rotated his slaves in and out of the state without telling them the real reason for his actions. At the end of his presidency, two of their favorite slaves—Martha’s personal servant, Ona Judge and their chef Hercules—escaped to freedom. Washington employed the resources of the federal government to try to entrap Ona Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and return her forcibly to Virginia. His efforts failed. Washington freed the 124 who were under his personal control. In his will, he stipulated that the action was to take effect only after Martha died so that she could still enjoy the income from those slaves. Sounds admirable. Here is what happened. After George died, Martha grew terrified at the prospect that the 124 slaves scheduled to be freed after her death might try to speed up the timetable by killing her. Unnerved by the situation, she decided to free those slaves ahead of schedule only a year after her husband died.
The History They Knew (Diachronic Context)

To see and appreciate the view from the 100th floor of the Empire State Building, floors 1 through 99 have to be properly constructed. So some background. Always ask yourself, what history did the participants know and embrace? History was important to the founders. (See John Willson's brilliant article, Was There a Founding? on The Imaginative Conservative blog.) They thought that stable and secure and decent governments, devoted to the protection of liberty, must be based on truths of human nature revealed in experience. To understand the American experience during these four decades, there are several historical things to have some familiarity with:

  • The Roman republic, not necessarily wie es eigentlich gewesen, but as interpreted by the Founders -- a history that was rich with analogies, paradigms, heroes, and antiheroes.
  • Western Europe's religious history: England's turbulent history from the 1530s to the 1680s. During this 150 year period, England could not decide what it would be: Catholic or Protestant? If Protestant, then Lutheran, Calvinist, or Latitudinarian (so: Catholic in form, latitudinarian in content)? The Wars of Religion would have a great impact on the notion of a state religion. You will see their impact most vividly in the embrace of the Enlightenment. Also in a Constitution that prohibits religious tests for public office, and in the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a national church. Also in Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom." (But note tension -- Willson: John Adams said in 1818 (and by that time he was a Unitarian) that the revolution was over before the war began--it was a change in the religious sentiments of the American people. So important was the Great Awakening to later events. The article in the Northwest Ordinance regarding "religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the ...." Also Washington's "Farewell Address.")
  • England's political history: An absolute monarchy (Stuarts), a constitutional monarchy with a strong Parliament, or a republic (Cromwell)? Regicide, civil war, revolution -- England experiences it all. Burke on 1688. A revolution not made, but prevented....
  • England's cultural history. Decadence of Charles II's court. Commonwealth men on the luxury debate.
  • Dutch economic history: the Dutch republic's economic success is stunning
  • English economic history: Adam Smith and the early phase of the Industrial Revolution
  • European imperial struggles: Seven Years War: the last of four world wars between the English and the French. The segue into Phase I, the constitutional debate.

Contemporary Events (Synchronic Context)
The French Revolution (1789-'99) Napoleon (1799-1815) The Haitian Revolution Spanish America's liberation from Spain
Phase I -- overview
Looking back, John Adams believed the revolution began on February 24, 1761, in a Boston courtroom, when James Otis delivered an oration that asserted the Americans' right to question and even challenge not just the writs of assistance, but also the monarch's and Parliament's assertions of supremacy over the Colonies. The Stamp Act and all the other acts would provoke Americans and feed a fierce debate over what it meant to enjoy the rights of Englishmen.
Phase II -- overview
April 19, 1775, Battle at Lexington Green: In the predawn light of April 19, the beating drums and peeling bells summoned between 50 and 70 militiamen to the town green at Lexington. As they lined up in battle formation the distant sound of marching feet and shouted orders alerted them of the Redcoats' approach. Soon the British column emerged through the morning fog. Parker's words as being what is now engraved in stone at the site of the battle: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." The British charged and fired first, and the confrontation that would launch a nation began. Lexington Green has only a handful more of slain Americans (eight killed) than the Boston Massacre (five killed). But look at what had changed. The former led to a trial and acquittals; the latter led to all out war. After the Battle at Lexington Green, the Redcoats were confronted by Minutemen in Concord and were fired upon on their retreat all the way back to Boston. After Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British realized that the Americans were fighters. Under General Howe the British moved from Boston, a Patriot hotbed almost totally hostile to them, to a safer base of operations, New York City, where a significant portion of the population was Loyalist. May 10, 1776, Act On May 10th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress drafted an act that instructed each state to establish a new government to grapple with the problems of British military threats. John Adams drafted the preamble that was inflammatory and caused dissension. The revolutionaries are reluctant. They are still holding back, wondering if there is middle ground still. John Adams took notes of the debates. Did the American cause still have friends in England worth keeping? Why pull down the old house to construct an entirely new one, and expose ourselves to all the storms that will come? Declaration of Independence Only by late June 1776 did an overwhelming majority of members of Congress concur that independence was necessary. It took 14 months after armed conflict had erupted for the majority of America's revolutionaries to arrive at the conclusion that there was no longer any room for compromise, no hope for reconciliation. Patriots knew they needed help from others to fight tyranny, and that meant Americans needed to explain clearly and decisively why they were compelled to break the colonies' bonds with the mother country. From the British viewpoint, of course, such action was treasonous. It was also audacious. The "Declaration of Independence" was composed only 100 miles from the British Redcoats' base of operations in North America, in New York City. The Declaration was the critically important document to grow out of Americans' independence movement. It consist of three major parts. The first part exalts individuals who are created by God and possess the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These opening sentences also exalt the corporate body of humans in community. By natural right, by virtue of their having been created by God, human beings possess sovereignty, the right to rule themselves. So government exists not to serve a monarch, but first and foremost to protect humans' God-given natural rights. When a government no longer protects these rights, but abuses the people, the people have a right to dissolve it and begin anew. They should expose the crimes of a tyrant because a candid world should sit in judgment on human actions. The middle part of the document consists of facts submitted to a candid world. It did not set up a plan of government. And its authors had no effective way to organize a military campaign against the most powerful army and navy in the world. Isn't it interesting that the battle of ideas came first??? Justify independence, win ascent from all thirteen colonies, and then set up a government and organize a military campaign. They would be traitors to their king, so they had to show that the king had become a tyrant who would not reform his thinking or ways. He was unfit to be the ruler of a free people. At his hands they had experienced not an occasional or incidental breach of their rights, but repeated, deliberate injuries. A pattern of abuse. The litany of complaints forms the core of the Declaration. It detailed every injury committed by the King, by Parliament, and by generals and governors serving the Crown in North America. Everything that had gone wrong since the early 1760s:
  • He had ignored their humble petitions;
  • He had dissolved legitimate representative bodies of government;
  • He had refused to recognized laws that were passed in these assemblies;
  • He had refused to allow new representatives to be elected and to take their place in assemblies;
  • He had impeded the administration of justice;
  • He had made judges more dependent on him personally;
  • He had set up new positions of government bureaucrats to harass Americans and drain their economy;
  • He had cut off international trade;
  • He had discouraged immigration from Britain;
  • He had discouraged colonists from moving West;
  • He kept standing armies among them in time of peace, without the consent of America's legislators;
  • He quartered his troops on their property;
  • He made it difficult to try in American courts any troops who broke the law;
  • He did not consistently hold that the military were dependent on and subordinate to civil authority.
Despite everything that had happened, the Patriots still regarded themselves as a free people. So they explained in the Declaration why they had to throw off the King and Parliament and British people to maintain their freedom. Given so many violations of the British constitution, there would be war until American independence was achieved. Brilliant document that approaches it both-and. A rare instance when British history is a ratification of natural rights. It combines general philosophical principles (Locke) that had been honed in the Enlightenment, with specific violations of the British constitution that had been evolving in Common Law and institutional arrangements since the Middle Ages. Remarkable, that document did the trick. It won unanimity of thought up and down the Atlantic seaboard in a way that British North America had never experienced before. It began the process of forging a nation. But not everybody was on board, even hostile to the Declaration. John Dickinson such an interesting person. He refused to sign the Declaration, but volunteered to fight the British. He supported resistance to tyranny, but thought the Declaration was ill advised and premature, a mistake. He thought the British might still address American grievances. He believed the Americans were not unified enough. He believed the Americans were ill prepared for war. Fight the most powerful army and navy in the world? Also he was afraid the French -- remember, still a monarchy -- would forge an alliance with the British. He also was afraid of the virtue of Americans. They would not sustain their enthusiasm for independence, but would have taken fateful steps to suicide.
Phase III -- overview
Note the incredible difficulty of founding the new republic:
  • two wars with Britain
  • revolt among the officers at Newburgh
  • several wars with the Indians (failure of U.S. in first two campaigns, until 3rd under Mad Anthony Wayne succeeded)
  • a quasi war with the French, our former allies
  • economic debt, personal privation, and depression
  • deep divisions, first between Patriots and Loyalists, then between Federalists and Antifederalists at the Constitutional Convention, then between factions behind Adams and Jefferson. There were two quite different views of what the American republic should be.

Among the major elements of this phase are American constitutional debate (in contrast to Phase I, which was English constitutional debate), plus the Virginia and Kentucky resolves, written by Madison to oppose Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. Jeffersonians tried to establish a strict construction of the Constitution, and asserted the right of states to declare national laws null and void in a particular state.


In British North America between 1761 and 1815, something remarkable happened. Let's hear the voice of four Brits who reflected on the colonies and "colonials" they lost:

Early in the conflict, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, William Pitt, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords, December 20, 1775: "I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master statesmen of the world—that for solidity and reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of different circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the general congress at Philadelphia. I trust it is obvious to your lordships, that all attempts to impose servitude on such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation—must be vain—must be futile.”

King George III was apprised by his American painter, Benjamin West, that his nemesis, George Washington, would be prepared to resign his commission -- give his sword back to Congress and return to his farm -- if the Americans won their independence. “They say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, writing in the North American Review, 1878: “As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Alfred North Whitehead stated that the generation of men and women who saw the American Revolution and Founding through to the end was the greatest display of political genius since the Age of Augustus and the beginning of the Pax romana.

There are many topics to explore in greater depth -- e.g., are we a Christian nation? John Willson writes: "That Christianity (and the Bible) was at the heart of the Founding is simply undeniable. The controversy over a resident Bishop consumed at least as much ink as the Stamp Act. The constitutions of the states and the United States are nothing if not written expressions of the Christian view of human nature. In every one of the first twenty years of independent national existence governments at all levels proclaimed days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. The churches (even a majority of Anglican priests) overwhelmingly supported the War for Independence. The definition of liberty preferred by Americans was Biblical: "They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (Mi4v4). Broader Context of North American Revolutions At the end of the course, it is useful to compare the three North Atlantic revolutions -- American, French, and Haitian revolutions. John Adams once said about the American and French revolutions, "Ours was resistance to innovation; theirs was innovation itself." A flippant comment, certainly; it nevertheless captures an important truth: insofar as it was successful, the American Founding was rooted in ancient truths, it was not attempting to 'touch-off' a transfiguration of the world." Source: John Willson, "Was There a Founding?" Imaginative Conservative blog.

Other topics and themes will be explored in subsequent essays.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Leadership -- practical tips

As you read the following leadership tips, you will see that many of them are common sense applied, or they are reminders of the tried and true, distilled from the collective wisdom of the species:

1. People don't care what you know until they know you care. Leaders are listeners. As the folk saying reminds us, "God gave us two ears and one mouth" -- surely a good guide to our communication. In a democratic environment, it is essential to establish a connection with others built on trust and respect. Good leaders know how to be present for the people they serve. Mindful listening helps establish a genuine connection. Leaders are sympathetic or, better, empathetic when face-to-face with suffering, triumph, tragedy, or everyday mundane experiences. When visitors came to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt would look people in the eye and sit stock still while listening to their story; they came away from the encounter feeling that they had been heard. Likewise, Bill Clinton had the ability to connect with people from an array of backgrounds; they felt he gave them his undivided attention, making them feel as if they were the most important people in the world.

2. Leaders are servants. In a democratic culture, leadership is not about I-me-mine, but we-us-our. In our constitutional republic, leaders are servants who seek to improve the commonwealth. (Ever think about that word, common-wealth?) Elected officials work for the general welfare of our communities, not for special interests. Corporate leaders in the C suite work for all shareholders, not just the privileged few. The people who are most affected by a decision often contribute ideas that are a substantial improvement over what a leader was thinking before consulting them. If people feel that they are listened to, and that their ideas are incorporated, there is more buy in. To use a hackneyed phrase, servant leaders know how to create win-win situations for as many people as possible.

3. Building consensus, one person at a time. Consensus-building skills are a highly desirable trait for survival in America's leadership ecology. Say you have a vision that requires significant change. You have to be able to explain the direction you want your organization to go. You need followers to buy in. If all are not immediately on board, find a few key people who have influence within the organization. Persuade these influencers first. Take care to listen to their concerns. Answer their questions. Bring them along. Once they buy in to what you are doing, they will bring others along.

4. Finding consensus early. Another way to achieve some consensus in a room of strong-willed individuals is to start by finding one thing that all of you can agree on. Then find, if possible, a second and third thing, no matter how small. These small successes build momentum for later negotiation. When the going gets tougher, find something 90 percent can agree to. What horse-trading must occur to bring along the 10 percent? Perhaps the next issue only has 75 percent consensus. What horse-trading must occur to bring along the 25 percent? Using this method, even a cantakerous group can agree to three or four things in one productive meeting.

5. Size matters. If two people are on stage debating, and one has considerably more height or presence than the other, then the person who is shorter or who has less presence should not stand behind the podium, where he will not make as strong an impression as his opponent. He should come out to the front of the stage and speak forcefully from that position of strength. He will be closer to the people and thus appear larger than his opponent standing farther back on stage behind the podium. I have seen people who are short of stature and lacking in charisma carry the debate using this technique.

6. Regarding PowerPoint presentations: They are often overused and not well used. But in a debate there is an advantageous way to use a slide that is projected before an audience and is bigger than life. Project your most powerful chart, quotation, statistic, or image up on the screen during your presentation, and try to keep the image before the audience even during your opponent's presentation. I have seen this technique used to devastating effect -- your picture is worth his thousand words.

7. Take responsibility for the mood in the room. Social psychologists who study group behavior know that people are highly influenced by the mood of dominant personalities. Moods are contagious. A person comes into a room either with an upbeat, can-do spirit; or with an air of indifference; or with a downcast defeatist attitude. Leaders know how important it is to put their game-face on when they walk into a room. They should be realistic and never pollyannish, but positive. They take responsibility for the mood in the room, and they can project their passion for the mission.

Leaders take care to master their moods, their tongues, and their actions. George Washington knew he had a bad temper and other serious flaws, so he carefully wrote out and studied the "Rules of Civility" to help discipline his words and actions. You must make every effort to project a steady personality and rock-solid character to those around you. As a leader, you are on stage 24/7. There are no intermissions. It is sad but true that people remember the one negative statement, the one unkind criticism, the one questionable action, far longer and far more vividly than a thousand good words and deeds. Self-mastery is essential among those who are watching you and looking to you for leadership.

When presenting the Leadership Life Cycle, I show how important it is to learn to lead yourself first. Alexander the Great could conquer the world but confessed that he could not conquer himself. Before dying at the age of 33, Alexander made mastering himself his next great project. And Alexander had for a teacher no less than Aristotle. But he knew it would be the toughest conquest of all. One must control emotions, the urge to retaliate, a biting tongue, and other negative responses. Leaders know the importance of the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

8. Be the one willing to make a decision. Often people have too much information, don't fully grasp the issues, are frightened, reluctant to upset others, or otherwise hesitant to make the decision to move forward to a better state. Leaders are the people who by temperament or training know how to make the tough decisions, the 51-49 decisions that may only be ratified by the passage of time. This attitude is exemplified by the sign on Harry Truman's Oval Office desk: "The buck stops here!"

9. Be as tough as you have to be. Admiral James Stockdale observed -- and he earned the observation after spending seven years in captivity in North Vietnam -- that leaders are survivors, and the people around them know it. The best leaders know how to accept physical hardship, handle psychological difficulty, call on liberal learning, and retain faith in a transcendent order. Physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual toughness are essential to leadership in tough times. Make this toughness habitual. As the chestnut goes, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

10. Headline rule. Leaders must not only be effective; they must be ethical. If you are ever in a quandary over some questionable action, a good rule of practical ethics is to ask yourself: "How would this action look if it were the headline of a newspaper." 99 out of 100 times, you will know exactly what you should do.

11. Magnify the message and multiply the messengers. The larger the organization you are serving, the more dependent you are on the buy-in of others. Make sure the team that you've assembled understands the vision and how it is being implemented. Send them out as your ambassadors, because you cannot and should not be leading alone.

12. Always be humble and always be eager to give the credit to others. There is nothing more unbecoming in leaders than when they steal all the credit from the people who are doing the heavy lifting for the organization. Their efforts would be in vain without all the people who are helping them achieve a common vision. As Christina Keller, one of our speakers at the Hauenstein Center, put it, "Good leaders step in front of criticism and step aside for praise."

13. Leverage crisis into growth. Crises are either the result of some internal failure (cowardice, pettiness, and vices of all types) or some external challenge (budget cut, loss of a key person, change in the market). You must be self aware and take the time to process a crisis and the emotions it produces. When presenting the Leadership Life Cycle, I try always to show that crises can result in our growth so that we become more ethical, effective leaders, even if it is difficult to appreciate the trial by fire when we are going through it.

14. Study the people around you, for you will surely learn much about leadership from them. We all are works in progress. No leader is ever finished with learning the art and science of leading. Keep your eyes and ears open to learn what works. Read good biographies of leaders. Be humble -- willing to be mentored, instructed, and corrected by those wiser than you. Careful observation of all the antimodels will also teach you what not to be, how not to act, what not to say. Keep a mental checklist of traits that make for good leadership -- courage, humility, connection, vision, principles, decisiveness, consensus-building skills, etc. Keep a mental checklist of traits that make for ineffective or unethical attempts to lead -- arrogance, dishonesty, cowardice, imperious behavior, insensitivity, weakness, lack of respect for others, acting in bad faith, etc.

15. Master social customs so that you do not step on your message. When you walk into a room, you need to know how to make a positive impression right away. You need to know how to dress and how to speak grammatically. You need to know the give and take of conversation as opposed to bludgeoning people with egocentric monologues. You need to know not to horn in on two people huddled in conversation. You need to feel comfortable with pleasantries as the lead-in to more serious conversation. You need to know the order of introductions and good table manners. You need to know where to put your name badge and which pocket to keep your business cards in. It is essential to master these seemingly trite social customs so that you don't make distracting faux pas. You do not want unpolished behavior to draw attention away from your message.

16. Have your "elevator speech" as ready as your business card. You really should be able to tell your vision to anybody, any time, in about 30 seconds. Leaders have a vision of what must change and what can stay the same. Can you explain it with clarity, conviction, and concision?

17. Do your homework. If someone up the chain of command poses a challenge for a number of subordinates to tackle, come to the next meeting with more plans and better plans than anyone else. General George Patton did exactly this in December 1944 when General Dwight Eisenhower and Allied forces were caught off guard by the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. Patton did not come to the next meeting wringing his hands, but prepared to move on two or three well-considered alternatives. Because he did his homework, he dominated the meeting.

18. Project confidence -- dress like your boss. Project that you are ready to lead on a moment's notice. After hostilities between the Patriots and Loyalists broke out at Lexington and Concord, George Washington took care to attend the sessions of the Second Continental Congress dressed in full military uniform. When the delegate from Massachusetts, John Adams, made a motion to name Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army, all eyes turned to the colonel who was dressed for the part and ready to lead. He was indeed chosen to lead American militia in the War for Independence.

19. Don't burn your bridges. Try to remain on cordial terms with all. You never know when you will need their help. Don't get ugly with them, demonize them, or betray them. When Republican Ronald Reagan was president, he often opposed, and was opposed by, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. They would debate and go at each other with hammer and tongs during business hours. And yet they could stop the debate at 5 p.m. and go have a beer together and laugh like the best of friends. They knew not to take their policy differences personally. President Gerald R. Ford was also noted for the respect and courtesy with which he dealt with other public servants. Ford said he had political opponents, never enemies.

20. Remember, if you don't like the way others are acting, first be a good example of what you want them to be. Don't succumb to anger, disappointment, and frustration. Work harder, try harder, listen harder. It is first up to you. Those around you will respect your ability to stay focused on the job rather than get derailed by problems. It's important to be consistent, to walk the walk.

21. Set realistic priorities -- and stick to them. I'd bet your leadership position is a great one. You can do anything you want. But you cannot do everything. Set your priorities and stay focused on achieving results. Otherwise your energies will be so dispersed you won't get anything accomplished.

22. Be bold. To lead is to capture people's imagination to see the possibilities of something better. Don't paint your picture with pale pastels, but with bold colors. And then be bold -- be bold in serving the commonwealth.

23. Work smart. There are a hundred stupid ways to try to make something happen ... and 2 or 3 smart ways. Choose the smart way by making sure you have consulted with the best minds.

24. Be a problem seeker, not just a problem solver. Michael Roberto reminds us that leaders have what the Greeks called pronoia, vision. Leaders should be good at anticipating problems and addressing the circumstances that lead to problems before the problems fully manifest themselves. Once a problem arises, it is too late to head it off and people are just reacting to it. Leaders do not have crystal balls. They cannot anticipate every problem. But they are also not just reacting to problems. Leaders are problem seekers. Managers are problem solvers.

25. Praise in public; correct in private. The importance of this act of kindness is self evident. It is merely the extension of the Golden Rule.

26. Say yes! I learned from GVSU President Emeritus Don Lubbers that leaders cultivate the atmosphere of a think tank. Welcome ideas. People will know that you are listening to them. Those who are serious about pursuing the ideas will do so and all will benefit. Those who are just musing will not and the institution is probably no worse for it. Saying yes to all promotes a creative, innovative work environment.

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For more on leadership formation at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, visit

Friday, April 15, 2011

Presidency (1): Lives, Leaders, Lessons

Being president of the United States is arguably the toughest job in the world. Harry Truman said it was like riding a tiger -- you are anxious about staying on, but you dare not let go. People are fascinated by the presidency because it gives them the opportunity (1) to catch a glimpse of interesting lives, (2) to learn how to become better leaders, and (3) to glean important lessons of our common story as Americans.


Most presidents have interesting biographies, even the "bearded icebergs" among them. It takes people with an unusual combination of traits to campaign for, and serve as, president of the United States. Few Americans are familiar with the fascinating human interest stories about the 43 men who have occupied the office:
  • The father of our country, George Washington, entered adulthood with a quite flawed character, seen most of all when he and the men under his command ambushed a French diplomatic mission at Jumonville Glen. This outrage led to Europe's first true world war, the Seven Years War.
  • You think the press is hard on politicians now? Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist as well as having a "negro slave" for a mistress when he ran for office.
  • James Madison was the last sitting president personally to lead troops in battle. It was during the War of 1812. Americans lost the battle, Washington was occupied, and the White House was set ablaze.
  • Andrew Jackson was a prisoner of war during America's War for Independence. He was wed to a woman who was still married to her first husband.
  • In the White House John Tyler married the charismatic and beautiful Julia Gardiner, a kind of Princess Diana of her day. She was young enough to be his daughter.
  • Some historians believe that James Buchanan, the only bachelor president, was gay.
  • When one considers all the obstacles he overcame -- poverty, lack of schooling, a tendency toward debilitating depression -- the odds against Abraham Lincoln ever becoming president were overwhelming.
  • In the White House, Grover Cleveland married the young woman he formerly babysat, Frances Folsom.
  • Woodrow Wilson's second wife Edith was secretly the acting president after a series of strokes debilitated her husband.
  • Calvin Coolidge never got over the death of his son during the first year he was in the White House.
  • Had Franklin Roosevelt divorced Eleanor, which he strongly considered doing in the 1920s after he was caught in an adulterous relationship, he would never have become president.
  • John Kennedy's libidinal and medical needs, had they been known, would probably have disqualified him from serving in the office today.
  • Richard Nixon's tortured responses to the Watergate scandal wrecked public and media trust in the office of the presidency, and it was left to Gerald Ford to clean up the mess. The encounter between Ford's assistant, Benton Becker, and former President Nixon in San Clemente has got to be one of the most surreal such encounters in U.S. history.


U.S. presidents offer leadership consultants a bevy of case studies. Because the American presidency is the toughest job in the world, it is a cockpit of leadership trials. People are fascinated by individuals who rise to the top ... and can stay there for any length of time. Past ages celebrated their heroes and saints. Our age celebrates leaders.

The office offers invaluable case studies in leadership for any American who wants to learn the lessons. Good books about the presidency invariably tell the story of the most important decisions U.S. presidents ever made. Such case studies (1) heighten awareness that the U.S. commander in chief has evolved into the single most important actor in world affairs – militarily, economically, and rhetorically; (2) throw light on the private toll major decisions exact on the president, first family, and close advisors and their families; and (3) show how a leader approaches those tough 51-49 decisions when much is at stake.

World-historical decisions worth considering include:

  • Washington’s decision to accept the presidency and establish the office on both constitutional and pragmatic grounds;
  • Washington's decision to retire after two terms of office demonstrated the importance of walking away from power -- a necessary virtue in a republic;
  • Adams's peaceful, constitutional transfer of power to the opposition party following the Election of 1800;
  • Jefferson’s opportunistic purchase of Louisiana territory, even though it violated his own governing principles;
  • Polk’s determination to go to war against Mexico;
  • Buchanan is savaged by most historians. But few people realize that the 15th president did not think the Constitution gave him the authority to keep Southern states from seceding. He also did not want to begin a war at the end of his presidency, which would unfairly burden his successor.
  • Lincoln’s willingness to risk war against the very people he was constitutionally sworn to protect at Fort Sumter;
  • Lincoln's decision to emphasize reconciliation with rather than punishment of the South following the Civil War;
  • Wilson’s legislative and public relations strategy at the end of the First World War to get Americans to back the League of Nations;
  • FDR’s move during the crisis of the Great Depression to make the first hundred days the benchmark of a presidency;
  • Truman’s unperturbed decision to drop two atom bombs;
  • Kennedy’s decision to accelerate U.S. involvement in Vietnam;
  • Lyndon Johnson's decision to champion civil rights for African Americans, which drove Southern Democrats into the Republican Party, insuring that Republicans would dominate the White House for at least a generation (and, indeed, the GOP won the White House in 7 of the next 10 elections);
  • Johnson's legislative skill and leverage of sympathy following JFK's assassination, which led to passage of almost 1,000 bills in just a few years -- a record no other president even comes close to;
  • Johnson's dishonesty about the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and his desire to prosecute the Vietnam War to take the New Deal (and specifically the TVA) to the Developing World;
  • To the dismay of most, Reagan focused on rebuilding America's morale and military strength to confront the Soviet Union -- and the Soviet Union obliged by crumbling from within without firing a shot.


Want a wonderful way to learn the most important lessons of American history? Because the president is the one individual in our government who represents all the people, he is inescapably identified with our national story. Thus the presidency is one of the best ways to open a window onto our collective trials and triumphs. Their struggles make for a rollicking good story.

1. The evolution of the presidency itself has become a part of that story, and it has had a profound effect on world history. To understand the evolution of the most powerful institution on the planet, one should start with the Constitution. After fighting to free themselves from a tyrannical king, the Founders were chary of a powerful executive. It is no accident that the first Article in the Constitution is not about the Presidency but about the Congress. According to the framers, it is the legislative branch, representing the people, that is to initiate action on the part of the national government. Symbolically Article II, concerning the Presidency, comes after Article I about the Congress since the president's duty is to enforce the laws already passed by Congress.

Following the lead of the framers, virtually all of our early presidents tended to defer to Congress in domestic matters (except when the nation was under immediate threat from a foreign power). Until the end of the 19th century, our nation did not have the robust, interventionist foreign policy that Americans are used to today. Although derided by political opponents as "King Andrew," even Andrew Jackson's assertions were usually to exert a negative force to stop something from happening. Among the nation's first 25 presidents, Abraham Lincoln was the exception but that is because he served in exceptional times. He initially wanted to serve in the White House as a more restrained, Whig-style president, allowing Congress to initiate reforms, but he became the principal in one of early modernity's most devastating wars. As a result, Lincoln exploited all the powers at his disposal as a wartime commander in chief. His actions still generate heated debate, as a number of Americans believe that he was our most tyrannical president ever.

Not until the 20th century and the arrival of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, did the nature of the institution change vis-a-vis Congress. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898), TR proudly championed American empire. A social Darwinist when it came to international affairs, TR believed that warfare kept men manly and kept the people as a whole from becoming decadent. Because the president is constitutionally designated to be commander in chief of the armed forces, and because empire crowds out the time a government would otherwise spend on domestic policies, there arose the so-called imperial presidency during TR's presidency. The imperial presidency evolved through most of the 20th century as the United States embraced a 24/7 foreign policy. Our servicemen and women were increasingly deployed around the globe. As a result, we have been in more than 300 conflicts requiring the use of armed force. America's "soft empire" has effected a revolution in the office of the president (anticipated, incidentally, by Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention of 1787).

2. Jim Cooke makes a good argument that the first truly "liberal" president was John Quincy Adams; the last truly "conservative" president was Calvin Coolidge. JQA wanted the national government to initiate more programs than was customary. By contrast, Coolidge resisted the Progressives of his day and kept the national government fenced in, not allowing it to encroach on the private sector and civil society.

3. H. W. Brands observes that our nine Cold War presidents -- from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush -- always challenged conventional wisdom. The conservatives among them tended to become liberals in domestic policy, while the liberals among them tended to become conservatives in foreign policy. One reason conservatives became liberals in domestic policy was that the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union for the ethical high ground in the developing world. We had to demonstrate that our system of government was worth adopting and emulating. One reason liberals became conservatives in foreign policy is that they understood how real the threats to our nation were once they were privy to intelligence.

4. It's tough to find one overarching theme for the dozen presidents since World War II because the period spans two world-historical eras (from 1945-1991 the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, and since 1991 American dominance as the world's hyperpower). One constant has been the prevalence of television in shaping the institution and public opinion. The more successful presidents have used the medium adroitly. Two-term President Dwight Eisenhower won an Emmy for his presidential performance on the tube. John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election arguably because of superior performances during televised debates. (Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debates, so the disparity in media proved to be a turning point in electoral politics.) Two-term President Ronald Reagan parlayed a movie career into being a "great communicator" on TV. Two-term President Bill Clinton skillfully used television to project his likeable personality.

Instant communication has made the White House much more attentive to image, presentation, and gaffes. Mistakes are magnified at the speed of light. Molehills not only can trip a leader; they can make for a dramatic fall, as if down a mountain. Our post-war presidents must be much more cautious than their predecessors were. They have to be more self-conscious about the effect their words and actions will have on the next news cycle and election cycle than previous presidents. Whether 24/7 cable news coverage and the resulting hypersensitivity to image have been a good thing for American governance is debatable.

5. Not every lesson has to be high falutin. Some are simply fascinating -- e.g., when popular tastes have a purchase on the presidency. Why is it that, with two exceptions, every president from Lincoln to Taft sported either a mustache or beard? The answer lies in the broader cultural trends of the West. During the Enlightenment, beards were out of fashion among leaders. No prominent European ruler wore facial hair while in office. Peter the Great even taxed beards to encourage Russians to look more like western Europeans. Following the European trend, none of America's founding presidents sported a mustache or beard while in office. But facial hair came back into style in the 1850 as a sign of virility. The trend caught on in the U.S.

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For more on leadership formation at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, visit

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Leaders Are Readers

There are four paths we walk if we seek to grow as leaders:

1. the path of observation -- carefully watching what other leaders do and say "on the ground";

2. the path of experience -- when we ourselves have the opportunity to lead;

3. the path of correction -- when we accept the constructive criticism, teaching, and mentoring of others who are in a position to evaluate how ethical and effective our leadership is;

4. the path of reading -- taking in what observors of leaders, and leaders themselves, say in the books and articles they write.

What I am about to say may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe that reading about leadership is more profitable after some time spent observing, experiencing, and being mentored by the seasoned leaders who take us -- an apprentice-leader -- under their wing. There is more in our minds to work with. It's akin to Plato's suggestion that thoughtful people wait until they are 35 years old to begin reading in and discoursing about philosophy. It's good to have lived a bit before we engage the well-considered thoughts of experienced people. Since we approach authors more as equals, the "conversation" is richer.

This is not to say that young people who aspire to a life of leadership and service should not be reading. Au contraire, they should read as soon as they profitably can. Whatever stage of your development as a leader, I recommend that you let good biographies be your companion. For my money, good biographies are much better than the surfeit of how-to leadership books that have become the cottage industry of consultants. Good biographies show that there are no formulas for leadership. A master biographer doesn't just tell us about leadership, but shows us the instances when good leadership involved steadfast courage and good judgment when a tough decision had to be made and much was at stake. At the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, we can attest to the estimable biographies by H. W. Brands, Richard Norton Smith, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, George Nash, Ron Chernow, and others whom we have hosted. Make their books your companions.

Many great men and women have left us clues about the impact of reading on their development as leaders.
  • Alexander the Great slept with a copy of Homer's Illiad under his pillow.
  • Virtually all of America's founders were serious readers of history and biography, especially Plutarch's Lives.
  • George Washington's mind was filled with Joseph Addison's play, Cato, about the famous Roman republican who resisted Julius Caesar to the end.
  • Lincoln walked miles to borrow books in the Indiana and Illinois frontier.
  • When George Marshall was nominated by Harry Truman to become U.S. Secretary of State, he was asked by a reporter what was the first thing he was going to do. Marshall said, "Read Thucydides."
  • John F. Kennedy had just read The Guns of August (1962) when the Cuban missile crisis erupted, and was so impressed by Barbara Tuchman's story of the outbreak of World War I that he ordered his staff to read it.
Below are a few recommendations of good books to read that will well serve as a leader's companion for a lifetime. They reflect my tastes and are in no particular order:

Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s Courage Under Fire
Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate
David McCullough's two magisterial volumes: Truman and John Adams
H. W. Brands’s Masters of Enterprise (Audio)
Any H. W. Brands biography -- First American, Andrew Jackson, TR, Traitor to His Class
Natalie Bober’s Abigail Adams
William Manchester’s Churchill (2 vols.)
Louis Fischer’s Gandhi
Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower
Carlo D'Este’s Patton
David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln
James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man
Max Ferrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
Machiavelli’s The Prince
Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V
St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations
Plutarch’s Lives
Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Cicero’s On the Orator
Aristotle's big 3: Nichomachean Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric
Plato's dialogues, especially the four collected under The Last Days of Socrates
Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War
Sophocles’s Antigone
Herodotus’s Histories
Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey
Old Testament, Book of Exodus
New Testament, Acts of the Apostles and the four Gospels
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
Tim Fuller’s anthology of classical readings, Leading and Leadership
Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership
Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor
Robert Wilson’s Character above All
David Gergen’s Eyewitness to Power
Sir Isaiah Berlin's essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox"