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Thinking Out Loud

Learning Leadership One Life at a Time

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 05, 2017

Learning LeadershipGood leaders often extol the value of reading biographies. Why do they value biographies so much?

To explain, allow me to do something that may not immediately seem relevant. I will draw a distinction between an "illustration" and a "story."

An illustration ordinarily makes a point. It illuminates an idea. That's its value, really, that it provides a clearer focus on a point a speaker or writer is trying to make. That's why illustrations have always been a favorite tool of orators and preachers.

A story, by contrast, is open-ended. It immerses you, often very quickly, into a life. A good story can raise more questions than it answers. It can take the listener to places that, frankly, even the storyteller may not have imagined. Some great stories can leave us disconcerted, disoriented, or confused, which (as any educational philosopher will tell you) is exactly where learning is nurtured.

An illustration might help us understand better the point a speaker is trying to make; but a story allows us to walk around inside of it, breathe its air, try on other people's shoes, and allow their experiences to expand our horizons. And there's just no end to what we may learn doing that.

The experience of reading really good biographies is like listening to really good stories. It's not, in other words, like hearing an illustration.

The inestimable value of investing serious time in the study of good biographies specifically about leaders is that they will introduce us to the variety of experiences to which that leader responded. And, this experience provides opportunities for us to examine the effectiveness of the leader's responses. But, of course, it does far more than that. A good biography also allows us to discern the character of the leader, the ways she adjusted to changes, conflicts, problems, and the ways she shaped the world around her and was shaped by it.

For example:

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2006), in which she brilliantly places Abraham Lincoln in the context of his cabinet, one is led into a profoundly conflicted historical moment with so many moving parts, so many opposing political camps and machinations, so much emotion, and such a variety of gifted, and sometimes utterly selfless, and often dismayingly self-seeking leaders, that there is simply no way one can emerge with just a lesson or two.

If you had asked me the day after I finished reading that biography, "What did you learn from it?" I probably would have said something like this: "I have a much deeper respect than ever for Abraham Lincoln, especially for his calmness under fire, his generosity of spirit, his apparent lack of bitterness and his political skill." But, beyond that, I probably would have said, "However, I will have to live with this book in my head for a while to discover what else I learned." Several years after reading that biography, I, am STILL learning from it.

Reading Ron Chernow's brilliant biography of Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin, 2005) about ten years ago, I knew immediately only one thing: Hamilton was far more important to the founding of our republic than almost any other single person except George Washington. More important than John Adams, more important than Jefferson, or Monroe, or Madison. But, again, it took years for me to live with that biography, returning to reflect first on this aspect of Hamilton's life and then another, for me to unwrap the many other learnings the book contained for me.

One of the most valuable experiences I've ever had reading a biography occurred while reading S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010). Quanah Parker's name is known to any Texas schoolchild. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was kidnapped from her home during a Comanche raid in 1836 when she was nine years old. She grew up as a Comanche, loved and married a Comanche warrior, and bore her son, Quanah. As an adult, she refused to return to the Euro-American world until tragically she was "rescued" by Texas Rangers in 1860. Her son, Quanah, became chief of his tribe. The biography traces his story, the story of a guerrilla warrior who was never defeated in battle.

Whether reading about Margaret Thatcher, or Lyndon Johnson, or Mohandas Gandhi, or Winston Churchill, or Albert Einstein, or Steve Jobs (provided the biography in question is well-researched, balanced, aware of its biases, and well-written), the investment in hours of reading and sometimes years of contemplation are more than worth it. This is as true of a deeply flawed leader as it is for a leader who appears almost ideal.**

I have loved the stories about Gandhi since I was a child. My grandparents introduced me to his legacy. They talked about how he inspired them. I've read the autobiography of his early life (his life experiment with truth, as he called it), and biographies about him too. A more beautiful human being is hard to imagine. His accomplishments and his influence live on, as do his failures. I have also enjoyed and benefited from reading biographies about L.B.J.  It is hard to imagine a more different leader than Gandhi. But, I dare say, while I hope that when my life is done I might be more like Gandhi in my soul (if not my wardrobe), I've learned more from that flawed political giant from Texas who wanted desperately to be the greatest domestic president of all time but will forever be remembered for a foreign war.

Religious leaders can provide especially interesting subjects for biographies, provided the books reject sanctimonious hagiography in favor of the unvarnished truth. We learn nothing of any real value from a biography of Thomas Cranmer, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther that doesn't make us cringe or feel a bit queasy. And, as Frederick Buechner famously demonstrated in his Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale several years ago, sometimes flaws in a great religious leader, such as Henry Ward Beecher, make his story enduringly valuable.

In recent years, my favorite biographies have all been of women, especially women who found ways (often against the most awful odds) to make a difference in the world.

Jane Welsh Carlyle is sadly almost only known today as the wife of Thomas Carlyle, but Virginia Wolfe celebrated her letters as among the wittiest and most intelligent of the nineteenth century. She was remembered by friends for her wicked sense of humor (they said that one always knew where she was at a dinner or reception because that's where the laughter was loudest). Her friendships inspired others to greatness, to heroic deeds and fine works of literature. And we have waited a very, very long time to have the biography she deserved.***

Sarah Losh's curiosity knew no bounds. Her abilities as an artist, artisan and architect reflected the emerging natural sciences of the nineteenth century, an appreciation for the piety of the early church, and a naturalistic and pantheistic exuberance that is simply irresistible. She was able to translate all of these sources of inspiration into stone in her design and construction of a single remarkable church: St. Mary's Church in the tiny English village of Wreay. One can only imagine the architectural commissions she might have undertaken, much to the betterment of that dreary ecclesial age's romantic and destructive obsession with a fake "gothic revival."****

Mary Jane Warfield's history is now almost lost to the ages, except for the brief mention she sometimes gets as the first (divorced) wife of Cassius Marcellus Clay, the nineteenth-century Kentucky politician and ambassador to Russia under Abraham Lincoln. But this remarkable woman imported such astonishing domestic architectural features as indoor plumbing to the United States (much to the astonishment of her neighbors); and, in a time when divorce was a scandal, she demanded her liberty from her strange, irascible, though fascinating, spouse. It appears that Mary Jane Warfield's daughter, Laura, one of the greatest women's suffrage movement leaders in our history, learned a great deal from her lesser-known mother. And, yet, Mary Jane Warfield's life has yet to be taken up by a first-rate biographer.

If any of these women had been men, all of society would have celebrated and would still revel in their accomplishments. They would have been heralded as renaissance figures. What kind of spirit does it take to BE so great, to keep on thinking and creating, to keep on persisting and trying, when all your culture conspires against you? But, none of these women's stories can be boiled down just to their tenacity. Their life stories are richer, and more marvelously confounding, than any single lesson can encapsulate.

If we are serious about being and becoming better leaders (as well as better people), biographies provide a richer school than any number of the latest books by our culture's overly puffed pop-gurus. Enjoy. And learn.

* If you're looking for a great new biography for yourself or a friend, Ron Chernow's new bio of Ulysses S. Grant (Grant, Penguin, 2017) is superb. I'm reading it now and I'm gaining new insights on virtually every page.

** However, a deeply flawed biography is another matter altogether. For example, my son, Jeremy, and I have often discussed why we found Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (Penguin, 2007), so disappointing. Our conclusion is that while her research is impeccable (she is an extraordinary scholar), the quality of her writing and her ability to get emotional distance from her subject undermine what might otherwise have been a fine book about one of the most fascinating figures in our country's history.

*** Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain (Duckworth Overlook, 2017).

**** The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine --Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary by Jenny Uglow (Macmillan, 2012).

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