Friday, February 10, 2012

Isaacson - Profiles in Leadership

Walter Isaacson’s Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness (2010) does not reference the extensive body of leadership research and theory. However, through astute historical analyses of the individuals profiled in this book, it brings many very important issues about leadership to light.

The profiles are primarily highly visible public figures who had positions of authority that allowed them to exert leadership. The other cases were exceptional cases where, by sheer force of will, the individuals were able to exert influence that pushed important issues forward in history. The public figures included the likes of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and Robert Kennedy. The exceptional cases included Charles Finney, Chief Joseph, W.E.B. DuBois, Wendell Willkie, and Pauli Murray. What I particularly liked about the book is that it was realistic; it identified failures in leadership as much as it focused on successes. Even in cases where history generally paints a positive picture, figures like Franklin Roosevelt were described as having both shortcomings and triumphs. In the case of Dwight Eisenhower, he is described as someone with immense potential for greatness following his successes as a commander in WWII but who failed in moral leadership when he ignored issues of discrimination and racism that affected the very men and women on whom he counted as soldiers.

There are so many jewels in this book that it is extremely difficult to pick only a select couple of examples to illustrate the wisdom of these historical analyses. Choosing two who actually opposed each other in the world of American politics will have to suffice – one is Franklin Roosevelt and the other is Wendell Willkie who sought the GOP nomination to run against Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt faced the challenge of restoration after economic collapse and a world war that he wanted to avoid. When “New Deal” policies came under question at the end of Roosevelt’s first term, he grew increasingly bold in his criticism of those who resisted his attempts to rescue the economy by saying that “…all my old enemies… monopoly, speculation, reckless banking… war profiteering” were undermining his efforts to create an economic recovery. Going further, he said, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred… I would like to have it said of my first Administration that the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match…” Roosevelt went on to win two more terms as President of the United States.

Wendell Willkie, businessman turned politician, was most significant for his contribution in authoring, along with Irita Van Doren, One World (1943). One of the most widely read books of the day, it addressed the increasing isolationism that was emerging at the time. Walter Lippmann praised it as “one of the hardest blows ever struck against the intellectual and moral isolationism of the American people.” Willkie was dedicated to engagement with the world in ways that recognized the negative repercussions of colonialism saying:
If we had left the olive groves and the cotton fields and the oil wells of this region alone, we might not have had to worry… But we have not left them alone. We have sent our ideas and our ideals,… our engineers and our businessmen, and our pilots and our soldiers into the Middle East; and we cannot escape the result… If we fail to help reform, the result will be of necessity either the complete withdrawal of outside powers with a complete loss of democratic influence or complete military occupation and control of the countries by those outside powers. (p. 256)

The previous reference to conditions in the Middle East are quite remarkable for 1943 and they are frighteningly predictive of the continued struggles of the Middle East.

In the conclusion of the chapter on Pauli Murray, an early champion of the American civil rights movement who was one of the first to use Ghandi’s methods of non-violent resistance, Glenda Gilmore (chapter author) sums up the key issue of transforming public leadership when she wrote:
Leaders aren’t just the few famous people who dominate the news or find their place in history books. They don’t always represent the majority. They aren’t always popular. They don’t always win, and they aren’t always remembered. Leaders such as Pauli Murray, brave and obscure men and women who act on their convictions even though they fail time and time again, sometimes change the course of history. (p. 280)