James Ledbetter:Every year publishers release dozens, if not hundreds, of books about leadership. These books range from how-to books written by tenured professors of management theory at Harvard Business School to inspirational tracts generated by motivational speakers and longtime high school football coaches. While it’s evident that an eager audience exists for leadership books, how useful could they actually be? After all, if it were possible to become an effective leader simply by reading a stack of books, then presumably there would be a lot more good leaders in the world.
Assuming it’s possible to learn leadership lessons from a book, it seems even more likely that one could glean authoritative wisdom from reading biographies of great leaders, people who were not only influential but who actually succeeded in changing the world. Biographies, moreover, have the advantage of being real stories and, unlike leadership self-help books, are often composed by excellent writers. They appeal to a much broader class of reader, including the kind of people who might once have read epic poems or romances, tales of gods and heroes and their mysterious ways. If it’s true that biographies of great leaders constitute a higher form of leadership literature, several questions remain: How do the biographers deal with the subject? Do they take lessons from leadership books or leadership theory? And do they agree—as many of the how-to books maintain—that leadership lessons can be distilled and presented independently of the leaders themselves, and transferred from one field of accomplishment to another? Seeking instruction, I turned to three distinguished biographers for guidance. Here are a few lessons I learned about leadership lessons.
Biography isn’t self-help. Almost no professional biographers set out to portray their subjects in a didactic manner; they are attracted to the complexity of depicting a leader in his or her natural habitat. “I don’t directly try to turn my biographies into how-to books,” insists Walter Isaacson, author of several biographies, including last year’s blockbuster Steve Jobs. On a leadership scale from 1 to 10, Isaacson says Jobs should be given a 10 as perhaps the most inspiring technology leader of all time, adding, “But I’d take away two points for being so abrasive.” And that’s the point: biographical subjects “are real people who have strengths and flaws,” says Isaacson. “Those of us who write biographies of leaders understand that it’s a much richer topic than can be synopsized into a few bullet points.”
Leadership is nature plus nurture, but mostly the right kind of nurture. Leadership skills must come from somewhere, and few modern authors would argue that they are genetically inherited. So biographers often look to early, character-shaping experiences. Nicholas Wapshott, author of two books on Margaret Thatcher, points to her upbringing as a shopkeeper’s daughter in a one-party Lincolnshire town as forging a combative outsider’s personality that she would later need as she launched her attack on the entire British establishment. “She was brought up a bit like a boy,” Wapshott says, “knew she had to do well, and always believed she was right.”
Taking the nurture point even further, some biographers reject even the idea of formative childhood experiences. Take Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded perhaps the largest military force in human history to win World War II and went on to become a two-term president of the United States. Jim Newton, author of Eisenhower: The White House Years, notes that there was little in Eisenhower’s early life—he barely made the top half of his graduating class at West Point and had a series of lackluster military jobs through his 30s that failed to impress even him—that suggested the emergence of a great leader. “I didn’t start my book thinking I was writing about an effective leader,” Newton says. “It’s only when [U.S. Army Major General] Fox Conner gets hold of him that he recognizes his own potential, and develops the knowledge and confidence that he could be a leader.”
Can leadership be taught? Based on the nurture argument, on some level the answer to this must be “yes.” Yet what people typically want to know when they ask this question is: Can leadership be taught from the same script to everyone?
And there the answer is more likely to be “no.” Isaacson insists that context and personal style matter a great deal. Perhaps the most important leadership moment in Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin is the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when Franklin resolves the conflict between large and small states through compromise and consensus. “Franklin accomplished things by intensely listening to all the people around him and being very tolerant of different views,” says Isaacson. That would have been impossible for Jobs—“Steve’s way was to absorb all the information and then set goals in a clear, stubborn, intense way”—but that doesn’t mean one was a less effective leader than the other, only that leadership can always take different forms.
Can leadership be transferred? A conceit of many leadership books is that lessons derived from one arena—say, business—can be applied to another. Biographers mostly dismiss this idea. Newton notes matter-of-factly that after Eisenhower’s crowning achievement in World WarII and before his two usually well-regarded presidential terms, Eisenhower was a relatively undistinguished president of Columbia University.
So what is leadership? Uniformly, the biographers agree that leaders must take on huge tasks that others may perceive as impossible—for Eisenhower, prevailing in the Cold War; for Thatcher, rolling back the state; for Jobs, overhauling multiple industries—but that it’s equally important to maintain focus on a small number of tasks or values. Wapshott praises the “narrowness of Thatcher’s vision,” while Newton quips that Eisenhower “was not someone who was accused of being stretched too thin.” As for Jobs, Isaacson tells of a signature moment at a corporate retreat, when all the Apple employees were lobbying for their projects and pet topics to make it onto a whiteboard that had a mere 10slots. When the list was finally whittled down to 10, Jobs told them they had to cross out the bottom seven. “It was his ability to stay focused, a commitment to a Zen-like appreciation of simplicity” that made him effective, says Isaacson. And that might be the only leadership lesson anyone really needs.