This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine
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.”