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"

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