Take Me To:
A. Lincoln: A Biography
Ronald C. White Jr.
Anyone with an interest in leadership should make a high priority of reading this splendid book. As far as I am concerned, it is the best one-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln you’ll find in any library or bookstore. Published in 2009, it is colorful and fluid, and it is easily accessible by anyone with even a passing interest in Lincoln, U.S. history, or leadership and its rhetoric. Ronald C. White is a professor at UCLA, and his expertise on Lincoln shows.
In particular, I liked White’s analysis of Lincoln’s communication: the intense work that went into every sentence of a proclamation or a speech, Lincoln’s appreciation of rhetorical devices and his empathy for readers and listeners, and his expectation that people generations later would read his words. All in all, this is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary leader who lived in extraordinary times, and to whom we Americans owe so much of our national identity and heritage. Do read it.
Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness
Guy MacLean Rogers
Arguably the first truly legendary leader of recorded history, Alexander the Great was a man of mythic accomplishment, and yet he died at the age of thirty-two. The ancient Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch, in his series of twenty-three dual biographies that has come to be known as Plutarch’s Lives, paired Alexander with Caesar and declared him to have been destined from childhood for historic greatness. The young prince took his education at Aristotle’s knee, and at the age of twenty he succeeded his father, Philip II, as king of Macedon (essentially Macedonia, north of Greece). Over the following twelve or thirteen years, he led an army to conquer what we now know as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt—the latter where he founded a seaside city that still bears his name and today is home to five million people.
Of more consequence for modern readers, Alexander III was perhaps twenty-three centuries ahead of his time. By dint of conquest and word, he spread the glory of Athens far afield and laid the foundations for millennia of Western civilization. He was extraordinarily cosmopolitan and unabashedly bisexual. His attitude toward women was remarkably enlightened; he outlawed rape and selected confident, knowledgeable women for positions of considerable authority. Yet he was also a murderous marauder. How does one reconcile these seemingly contradictory legacies?
In Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness, Guy Rogers wrestles with the conundrum. He compares Alexander III to twentieth-century leaders like Churchill and Truman, both of whom made decisions that led to the death of many thousands of people and yet who are regarded by historians as men of significant virtue. “Historical greatness itself is often a far more ambiguous and subjective concept than is usually appreciated,” Rogers writes at book’s end. “Many great historical figures have made mistakes and caused great suffering without thereby becoming monsters. Men and women with great abilities often have possessed correspondingly great flaws and they have made terrible mistakes because, in the end, the great, just like the rest of us, finally are human beings. We must learn to live with the ambiguity of the great. If we are able to live with the ambiguity of the great, perhaps we may live better with our own.”
One of my all-time favorites, this fascinating biography of Alexander Hamilton is the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton. What an incredible life Hamilton led. Reputedly born to a Caribbean courtesan, and having grown up in poverty, Hamilton managed to find his way to the American colonies in the 1770s.
By the age of nineteen he was an aide-de-camp to George Washington. His star continued to rise. He wrote most of the Federalist Papers, which provided the philosophical foundation and a reveille call for the new nation. He designed the rudiments of the American economy. Together with Washington, he championed a strong central government, and he served as America’s first treasury secretary. Without him, the United States of America would be a very different country today—if indeed it would even exist.
Chernow’s book, and more particularly Hamilton’s life, offers a motherlode of insights and lessons on leadership. Essential reading for all leaders and aspiring leaders, and important reading for anyone else who just wants to understand America's origin story. It is phenomenal, and best of all it is entirely true.
(Special note to anyone planning to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exquisite musical, Hamilton: It’s enormously helpful to familiarize yourself with the real story before you attend the show. At the very least, read the Wikipedia entry on Hamilton. Better yet, read Ron Chernow’s book beforehand, and also visit www.genius.com to read the lyrics, annotated by historians. The more you know and understand, the more you will appreciate this incredible production. Enjoy the show! I think you will agree it is even better than the hype.)
America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
Fergus M. Bordewich
America’s Great Debate is history as history should be written. It is utterly absorbing, a flat-out terrific page turner. I began reading it by chance in a bookstore and could not leave without it. Fergus M. Bordewich (a name only his mother could like) proves himself to be an heir to the mantle of David McCullough.
For most of us the Compromise of 1850 is dry history; in Bordewich’s hands it is riveting, colorful, and alive. The backstory: the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War that followed resulted in a vast accretion of American territory—including California, Nevada, Utah, and most of Arizona and New Mexico as well as Texas—and that created paralyzing questions as to the expansion of slavery in the new territory. The Compromise, the culmination of which still stands as the longest debate in U.S. history, settled the dispute only tenuously, for it included the Fugitive Slave Act, and in little more than a decade the United States was torn asunder by the Civil War.
Bordewich paints vivid, intimate portraits of California during the Gold Rush, of stentorian U.S. senators giving hour-long orations from memory, of frontier Texas where gunslingers shoot first and ask questions later, of legends like Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and, certainly not most, Zachary Taylor, a country bumpkin in the White House. You see their whiskered faces, smell the booze on their breath, and step lightly around the horse manure they traipse onto the Senate floor. If you like living history, I'm betting you will love this book. Don't pass it by.
American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900
When we think of leaders, most of us think in terms of public figures: presidents, generals, diplomats and the like. That isn't surprising, if only because public leadership is typically more visible. But most leadership actually takes place in the corridors and board rooms of business. Its impact is no less, and it is no less exciting, but we are able to view it less and often only in scripted announcements and disclosures.
In American Colossus, H.W. Brands turns his attention to the robber barons who built the foundations of American business and to the era in which they lived. Among them were legends like Andrew Carnegie in steel, Cornelius Vanderbilt in steamboats and railroads, J.P. Morgan in banking, Jay Cooke in finance and railroads, Philip Armour in meat, John D. Rockefeller in oil (for kerosene-fueled lamps, not gasoline-powered vehicles as yet), Jay Gould in gold, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins in railroads, and a roster of less-remembered names. It is no exaggeration to say these men and their companies, not to mention their penurious employees, built America. Brands brings them all back to life.
Along the way he also takes fascinating glances at leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, George Armstrong Custer, the one-arm explorer John Wesley Powell, Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White, Tammany Hall boss William Tweed, AC/DC rivals Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, tireless crusaders for racial equality Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington, the historian and essayist Henry Adams, social reformer Jacob Riis, and young dynamoes whose fame and fortune were still little more than the stuff of their own dreams: Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan B. Anthony, the Wright Brothers, Clarence Darrow, Theodore Roosevelt, and muckraker Ida Tarbell, among others—not to mention the mysterious, mononymous Coin, a fictive advocate of free silver, whose name and narrative were, excuse the pun, coined by an Omaha newspaper editor.
Parts of this book are a little dry, but other parts are colorful and exciting; I loved the vivid recounting of William Jennings Bryan, all of thirty-six years old, bounding two steps at a time to the podium of the Democratic National Convention of 1896 to give his historic Cross of Gold speech: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns! You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" After a barn-burning speech like that, Bryan, a long shot for the presidential nomination, could have had it that very night, but gallantly put it off until the next day. Great reading, great insights, great history.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
To my thinking this book has only one notable fault: its title. By rights and color the book should have been named Old Hickory. The author told the Washington Post Book World he chose American Lion as the title "not to lionize Jackson but to capture the contradictions at his core. If he were on your side, he would do all he could to protect you. If he believed you a foe, then he was a ferocious and merciless predator."
Okay, maybe a hickory tree cannot be ferocious and merciless; so enough already. I do enthusiastically echo the praise lavished on this book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, by the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin ("beautifully written, absolutely riveting"), Janet Maslin ("carefully analytical"), Michael Beschloss ("spellbinding, brilliant and irresistible"), and Douglas Brinkley ("the most readable single-volume biography ever written of our seventh president").
I would only add that it is supremely educational. Of course I was aware that Jackson was an unapologetic slaveowner and the genocidal architect of the tragic Trail of Tears, which relocated thousands of Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma. But until reading Old Hickory—excuse me, American Lion—I had no idea that Jackson essentially invented the modern presidency. He was the first president to bring a narrative straight to the American people. He was the first to attempt to manipulate the news media. He was the first to campaign for popular votes. "All of these features flowered in the age of Jackson," Meacham told an Atlanta interviewer, "and they all feel very contemporary." Indeed they do.
An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Mohandas K. Gandhi
Few leaders of the twentieth century came close to inspiring millions of people at home and abroad as Mahatma Gandhi did. The deeds of his life itself are an inspiration, his words the icing on the cake. This engaging and self-effacing memoir extends from his birth and childhood to the late 1920s, and it recounts in detail so many of his formative experiences as a young man in India, as a law student in England, as a barrister in Natal, and as an exemplar of nonviolent resistance (ahimsa and what Gandhi came to call satyagraha) back in India again.
Unquestionably the last twenty years of his life (he was assassinated in 1948) were the more eventful and consequential—certainly in historical and geopolitical terms—and one can lament that his autobiography does not include them, but many other serviceable biographies of the mahatma are in print. I recommend starting here, with Gandhi’s own accounting of his first six decades, which also includes many reflections on the truth as Gandhi saw it. However, be aware that this volume is a compilation of essays originally published in periodicals (something it has in common with War and Peace) and intended to be read by an Indian audience. Because of that, Gandhi is able to assume the reader’s familiarity with names of people and places and with certain traditions and practices of Hinduism. You will likely not have that familiarity, so you may feel a tad lost from time to time. In my judgment, some sections of the book (especially toward the end) also seem redundant and insubstantial. I read them cursorily, and you may want to do likewise.
This edition features a foreword by Sissela Bok, who identifies three legacies of the great Indian nationalist. The first legacy is the conviction that all of us can attach our lives to high ideals and live accordingly, regardless of how insignificant we may feel in the greater scheme of things. The second legacy is his stalwart opposition to ethnic, religious, or social intolerance and to any evil means to achieve an end, regardless of how noble it is deemed. Gandhi writes: “‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hate spreads in the world.” Indeed. The third legacy is his example of self-mastery—a divine path known as brahmacharya, which largely refers to sexual continence but may also extend to conformity with dietary or religious strictures. Gandhi recognized early on the inextricable link between the nobility of proper personal conduct and social change; the former is essential to the latter. This is the kind of memoir you won’t want to race through. It is jam-packed with the wisdom of a truly great leader. (See also my review of Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Gandhi in the section Movies on Leadership. If your knowledge of Gandhi is a blank slate, you may wish to begin with the movie.)
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Trust me, after you’re halfway in, you won’t put this book down for dinner. Published in mid-2018, Bad Blood is a compulsively readable account of Theranos Inc., a Silicon Valley unicorn that truly was a fairy tale. Its charismatic young founder persuaded an A-list of wealthy people to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a pipe dream: her spurious claim that a small, portable machine could accurately, speedily diagnose hundreds of diseases from a drop of blood.
At one point Theranos was worth $9 billion, and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford University dropout with no medical or scientific training, was briefly worth more than $4.6 billion. She was hailed as the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all rolled into one; in a nod to her hero Jobs, she even wore the same brand of black turtleneck sweaters that Jobs wore, and she got around Palo Alto in a black Audi sedan lacking license plates, only hers came with a chauffeur. Still in her 20s, she had a private Gulfstream jet at her disposal, she never went anywhere without a security detail, and her face was on the cover of national magazines.
Today, in her mid-30s, she is disgraced, broke, and, along with the company's president and chief operating officer, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, under federal indictment for fraud. As leaders, Holmes and Balwani did everything wrong. They lied, they cheated, they intimidated, they manipulated. They were self-aggrandizing, and they were arrogant. They were paranoid, secretive, amoral, insecure, and temperamental. Far from sophisticated, they were naive simpletons who picked a highly regulated industry with life and death implications for their shenanigans. But through shameless audacity and sheer force of her magnetic personality, Holmes persuaded a Who's Who of otherwise sophisticated investors to pour millions into her high-tech fantasy. They included Carlos Slim, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, David Boies, Jim Mattis, Bill Frist, Sam Nunn, Betsy DeVos, Bill Perry, and a number of Fortune 500 chief executives. Barack Obama and Joe Biden sang her praises—the latter after visiting a Theranos laboratory which was nothing more than a Potemkin Village. Walgreens and Safeway signed multimillion-dollar deals.
What they all missed was the sad reality: that her claims were flimsy, unscientific, inconsistent, and outright false. The warning signs were all around, beginning with the simple fact that the board of directors lacked anyone with medical or scientific training or legitimacy. Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal who broke the story, and his reporting is detailed and thorough. Still, I suspect we haven’t yet heard the whole story, which will likely take months if not years of litigation and polemics. For now, we have one helluva good start. I can’t wait for the forthcoming movie, which will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. (Here is a 60 Minutes segment from September 2018 on the company and the book.)
Apart from being a flat-out terrific read, Michelle Obama’s new (as of late 2018) memoir is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a presidency and everything that went into the making of a most unlikely president—“a complete nobody,” as she put it, until his extraordinary speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 2004.
The former first lady offers a personal, even intimate perspective on politics, power and the privilege of living at the world's most famous address. She has an inherently fascinating story to tell, of course, and she tells it with warmth and grace. Her childhood on the South Side of Chicago was loving and supportive but never far from gangs, graffiti, and grime.
She shares wonderful little stories about the first time she met Barack Obama—he was late—and their first date and even their first kiss. Her anecdotes about Queen Elizabeth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, George and Laura Bush, Nelson Mandela, the White House staff, and of course her daughters and husband offer glimpses of life as only a handful of living people have experienced it. Little things about living at 1600 are so telling: the fact that White House windows cannot be opened, that the building is so soundproof she could smell the fuel of Marine One when it landed but could not hear it, that you cannot simply open a White House door and walk out. All in all, highly recommended for general audiences.
Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Being Nixon: A Man Divided is a searing psychological portrait of our brilliant but deeply flawed thirty-seventh president. I will recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the complexities and moral ambiguity that dominated his psyche—something of an inferiority complex infected with paranoia and resentment at East Coast intellectual snobs.
Probably most Americans still revile Richard Nixon, but I am inclined to both empathy and sympathy for him. His aides Bryce Harlow and Henry Kissinger put their finger on the core issue: his profound loneliness owing to the absence of love and affection as an adolescent. "Can you imagine what this man would have been like," Kissinger asked, "if someone had loved him?"
A half-century afterward, Nixon's presidency remains one of the most consequential of all, and yet it fell apart for a ridiculous, unnecessary scandal borne of non-pecuniary paranoia. (Recall that he was wildly popular heading into the 1972 election, and the rival Democratic Party was beset by ideological infighting. Nixon was coasting to re-election; he would ultimately carry forty-nine of the fifty states even after the Watergate scandal broke.)
I remember a private conversation perhaps fifteen years afterward with U.S. Senator Paul Simon, the liberal Democrat from Illinois. I asked Simon to cite a Republican he respected, and he pointed to Nixon. I was astonished. Simon predicted that Nixon's impact on the world would be felt for generations: the geopolitical opening to China, the end of the U.S. military draft, the establishment of OSHA and the EPA, the airlift of fuel to Israel, the enactment of clean air and water laws, the enfranchisement of 18-year-old voters—and, to speak the obvious, a newfound sensitivity to the abuse of presidential power. Being Nixon is one of many serviceable biographies of this fascinating man, and it is as good a place as any to begin. (See also my review of another of those biographies, Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew, below.)
Boys in the Trees: A Memoir
On one level, pop singer Carly Simon’s frank memoir is an intimate tour of her rise to stardom and then her fall from popularity as the public’s fickle tastes inevitably flittered to the next shooting star. On another level, it is a candid, penetrating portrait of her vulnerability, perseverance, and survival, and it has plenty of incisive insight for mature and growing leaders everywhere (though the lunkheads out there will ignore it).
Boys in the Trees is a quick read: light but not too light, dishy but not too dishy, sweet but not too sweet. It is also surprisingly deep, especially in the last few chapters, with profound insights on love, marriage, authenticity, friendship, self-control, and more. The stories on the hard work and inspired creativity that go into writing a song are absorbing (some of her best lines came from a journal she always kept within reach), and the anecdotes about her marriage to singer James Taylor and her casual relationships with other famous people (Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman) offer a glimpse behind the scenes.
Simon, one of four children of a cofounder of Simon and Schuster, grew up in rarified circumstances. It was not uncommon for dinner guests to include the likes of Benny Goodman, Jackie Robinson, Ira Gershwin, and any number of bestselling authors. But the Simon family had its demons, too. Carly’s mother was cuckolding her father with the children’s caregiver under the family roof, and her parents were scarcely talking to each other. Her father died of a heart attack—perhaps a broken heart—at the age of 61. As young Carly discovered and developed her musical gifts, she fought off the “beasts” of stammering and stage fright as she made her way into the fast world of stardom. Along the way, she grew into a mature and thoughtful voice whose songs are immediately recognizable, fifty years later, to anyone of my generation. I wish more celebrity-written books were as graceful, substantive, and readable as this one.
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
It’s easy to see that Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from obscurity to the U.S. presidency required a great deal of luck and extraordinary timing. But it also required certain gifts for leadership that are all too rare: an appreciation for the moment, an instinct for the possible, and a talent for finding the right word.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, digs deep into Obama’s history to find the wellspring of those gifts. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether Obama brought those gifts to bear in governing. (The Bridge derives its name from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—the site of the bloody confrontation between civil-rights protesters and armed police in 1965—and from the metaphorical bridge from the first generation of civil-rights leaders to the twenty-first century reality of an African-American president.)
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie
I received this book as a birthday gift from a friend who knew I loved reading biography but who didn’t know that (at the time, anyway) I had little interest in Russian history. My first thought was, “Eeeew. Now I have to read it.” I began reading only out of a sense of duty to my friend, and then something unexpected occurred. I could not put this book down for dinner.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is the best-selling biography of a minor German princess who became the eighteenth-century empress of Russia. It is an incredible story, and historian Robert K. Massie tells it with depth and balance. Untouched by her cold husband for nine years, Catherine II took a succession of a dozen lovers before and during her reign. One of them was the legendary Gregory Potemkin, whom Massie speculates she may have actually married after ascending to the throne.
Catherine was far ahead of her time, as she gave life to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, sought to codify natural rights long before the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, worked to free the Russian serfs three generations before Lincoln’s wartime Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, laid the groundwork for the Hermitage, and led Russia kicking and screaming into the modern era. Great reading for any serious history buff, with big lessons for students of leadership. I highly recommend it.
Hundreds of biographies have been published about Winston Churchill, and deservedly so. After all, no figure of the twentieth century was more fascinating and more relevant to world affairs. Had he not lived where he lived, when he lived, and how he lived, we would be living in a far more dystopian world than we are. If there is a single lesson on leadership from reading biography, that is it: Do what you can, whenever you can, however you can—but do it.
Paul Johnson, a master of concise writing, has produced one of the briefest and one of the best biographies on the long-lived British leader. Johnson is a gifted writer, and his Churchill is a breezy, colorful, and informative read. I highly recommend it. At only 166 pages, this is a book you can start today and easily finish tomorrow, too.
Short biographies need not omit important details or aspects of the principal’s life, and indeed Johnson’s does not. On reading this book after finishing several other Churchill biographies, I found that I was learning important things about Churchill that I had not known or even wondered about before. Perhaps the authors of comprehensive biographies feel they are writing for the already-tutored reader, so they have no need to put decisions and events in fuller context, whereas the author of a concise biography has no qualms about inserting a sentence of explanation here and there.
A couple of examples serve to illustrate. For one, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Churchill sought to ratchet up an intervention. Parliament undercut his efforts. Had he succeeded, Johnson writes, communism would likely not have taken root in Russia, and without it, fascism would likely not have found a breeding ground in Germany and Italy. Imagine the twentieth century without the carnage of both communism and fascism. For another, look to the Middle East. Johnson recounts Churchill’s role in the creation of Iraq and Jordan, and, eventually, Israel as well. Johnson also explains the interconnection between American support for Standard Oil Co.’s work on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabian protection of Wahhabism, the spiritual and cultural driver of so much terrorism today. On that, Churchill’s hands were tied.
All in all, this brief book is a marvelous introduction and overview of Churchill’s life, and it is easy to read. I recommend it especially for neophytes. (See also my reviews, immediately below, of Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins and Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts.)
Churchill: A Biography
I run hot and cold on this book, which Arthur Schlesinger generously called the "best one-volume biography" of the iconic British statesman. Let's stipulate that, upon its publication in 2001, it was. In the fifteen-plus years since its publication, academics have pored over a treasure trove of correspondence, minutes (in the British sense of that word), and other documents to shed new light on the man and his times. Benefitting from this research, the 2018 publication of Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts has clearly surpassed the Roy Jenkins volume in depth, sweep, and grace.
Having said that, I must acknowledge reading Jenkins until the wee hours, night after night. Though descended from the First Duke of Marlborough—and thus nominally members of the British elite—Churchill and his family were scarcely a step above commoners, and he worked hard as a writer through most of his life to make ends meet. From the Boer War to the Atomic Age, Churchill was often in the trenches of history, both militarily and politically. The author of this book was a member of the House of Lords who knew Churchill personally, so he is able to draw on numerous experiences to color his descriptions of speeches, meetings, and other incidents that define Churchill's leadership.
Jenkins is also a biographer of William Gladstone, the estimable nineteenth century prime minister. At book's end Jenkins writes: "When I started writing this book [the Churchill volume] I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street." If it does nothing else, this book attests to his judgment. (See also my reviews, immediately below, of Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts and, immediately above, of Churchill by Paul Johnson.)
Churchill: Walking With Destiny
This is an absolutely enthralling biography of perhaps the greatest man of the twentieth century. Andrew Roberts is a masterful biographer, and Churchill: Walking With Destiny is a lengthy (982 pages) but absorbing and enlightening chronicle of a life that truly was bigger than life.
Published in mid-2018, this is the newest of the four or five biographies of Winston Churchill that I have read, and it is the best. (But see also my reviews, immediately above, of Churchill: A Life by Roy Jenkins and of Churchill by Paul Johnson.) Churchill, born in 1874, lived through an incredible sweep of history: the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the automobile and the airplane, the erosion of British imperialism, the darkness of communism, the stench of fascism across Europe and the aerial bombardment of London, the Allied victory in World War II, the dawn of atomic warfare and nuclear power, the rise of the United States to world dominance, the birth of free India, and even the launch of astronauts into orbit.
Far from perfect, Churchill was nonetheless the right man in the right place when Adolf Hitler attempted to put all of Europe under his despotic thumb. I especially like the focus that Roberts puts on Churchill's speeches—to the House of Commons and over the airwaves—and on the three dozen books that Churchill wrote. Because of his gift for words, Churchill was able to communicate powerfully; his 1940 speeches to Parliament still stand as singular examples of oratorical art. This volume also colorfully brings out Churchill’s large personality, quick wit, and outsize energy. He was an amazing and inspiring leader at a historical juncture that demanded amazing and inspiring leadership, and I highly recommend this biography. (Many thanks to Gander the Service Dog and his biped, Lon Hodge, for the gift of this splendid book.)
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
Cicero. Caesar. Antony. Cleopatra. Brutus. Pompey. Cassius. Augustus. Their names have survived the millennia, but what do most of us know of their personalities, their passions, their rivalries and jealousies, their marriages and affairs, their grit and their wit? Next to nothing.
British antiquities scholar Anthony Everitt, who also happens to be a fine writer, brings all these disembodied and depersonalized names back to life with verve, color, and historical context. You can smell the Tiber, taste the wine, and see the blood on Caesar’s toga as he lies dying from twenty-three stab wounds on the Ides of March—and the blood from Cicero's neck as he is decapitated by a sawing sword the very next year.
Of course Everitt’s focus is on the book’s eponymous hero, whom Everitt depicts as ambitious, willful, eloquent, acerbic, conflicted, and vainglorious—but also, most critically, as the very embodiment of that platonic ideal of statesman and philosopher in one, and as perhaps the most eloquent rhetorician of his or any age. A contemporary of Caesar, Cicero lived and died at the inflection between the republic of Rome and the Roman empire.
Everitt's coda unintentionally brings us to the doorstep of the twenty-first century. Moments before his death, Cicero was reading Euripedes's play Medea, and his eyes may have settled on the haunting line: "But now everything has turned to hatred and where love was once deepest a cancer spreads." Amid the domestic political chaos of 2018, I shuddered when I read that foreboding passage; it seemed to prophecy the Dark Ages that would follow the glory of Rome.
I thoroughly enjoyed this biography, as much for the personalities as for its historical narrative and insights on leadership. If I have a criticism, it is only that the book could have benefitted from a cast of characters to help readers keep track of all the lesser names. But you can do that for yourself with pen and paper. Do read this splendid biography. (See also my review of Julius Caesar, by Philip Freeman, below.)
The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right
A borderline choice for inclusion in this bibliography, The Corrosion of Conservatism ultimately made the cut because of its excoriating assessment of bad leadership offered by the forty-fifth president of the United States. As Barbara Kellerman argues in Bad Leadership, you cannot fully understand good leadership until you understand bad leadership, and you cannot understand bad leaders until you understand bad followers.
Max Boot, a lifelong conservative, a Jewish émigré from the Soviet Union at the age of six, and a former Wall Street Journal editor, builds a powerful case against a president with authoritarian instincts—and against a political party that genuflects before him and so robustly supports his policies, which diverge almost in their entirety from the party’s time-honored positions of the past. Boot writes with conviction, zeal, and a mastery of history.
As a longtime voice of responsible conservatism, he is perhaps uniquely positioned to dress down an emperor walking naked in the street. I found his book to be a well-documented and well-deserved jeremiad on the politics of demagoguery we have all experienced in the last couple of years, and I can highly recommend it to sober Americans and to anyone who wants to understand how easily leadership can go off the rails.
For anyone over fifty, Walter Cronkite was once a familiar presence on television. He pioneered the concept of television news anchor. Night after night, he appeared on millions of televisions across the United States and "told it like it is."
Cronkite is endlessly fascinating, and his life makes terrific grist for a lengthy biography. Anyone who remembers watching him report on President Kennedy's assassination, the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War, the Begin-Sadat summit, and especially the space launches will enjoy this book.
Brinkley, a Rice University professor (and no relation to Cronkite rival David Brinkley, near as I can tell), does a solid job of researching and presenting his subject. You really get to know "Uncle Walter." He was widely known as the most trusted man in America, and no one disputed it. His reporting from Vietnam, unheard of at the time for an anchor, turned the fortunes of American involvement; he declared the United States was "mired in stalemate" and suggested "the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could." Watching the news in the Oval Office, President Lyndon Johnson mused: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country." A month later LBJ announced he would not seek re-election.
Brinkley's biography is competent and engaging, but I also have one big criticism, which isn't Brinkley's fault and which may already have been remedied in subsequent editions. It involves the editing, or lack thereof, which should be the publisher's responsibility (in this case HarperCollins) but is woefully neglected here. The book is littered with errors of diction, syntax, style, structure, and worse. After a while it gets irritating. But if you can get past the poor editing, the narrative itself is very worthwhile.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Though entirely true, this book reads like fiction; and people read it as if they were reading a novel. If only it was, and if only they were. Actually, The Devil in the White City is a fantastical double helix of two unbelievable but real-life stories about the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
Its millions of visitors had never experienced anything remotely like the Columbian Exposition. For most, it was the first time they had ever seen a light bulb, and there were thousands of light bulbs (which made the entire scene “white” with light after dark). The Exposition also introduced the Ferris Wheel and Shredded Wheat, and it launched the City Beautiful movement of modern urban planning to show that cities needn’t be dark and drab, but could be places of beauty and élan. Ultimately the Exposition would inspire Walt Disney's theme parks—young Walt's father worked on its construction—and the mystical Land of Oz that L. Frank Baum, a Chicago journalist writing children’s fantasies as a side gig, was quietly envisioning behind his typewriter. Today the only building that survives is the beaux arts Palace of Fine Arts, now reincarnated as the Museum of Science and Industry; but upon its construction, the Obama Library around the corner will be on the same tract of land where the Fair once stood, as well.
In one of the two intertwined stories, the famed architect Daniel Burnham takes on the task of designing and building the grounds of the world’s fair in just three years. It’s a formidable challenge, and his partner, Daniel Root, dies midway through it. But the brash young architect succeeds. That alone is a phenomenal story. It offers an inspirational, object lesson in dreaming big. In the other story, the devil—behind the mask of one H.H. Holmes—is methodically luring pretty young women into his death chamber just a mile from the fairgrounds. That story and its gruesome details are the stuff of manipulation, and they can be studied only as a moral breach.
This book is exceedingly well-researched and well-written, and I do recommend it. For those of you who prefer your history on a small screen, Hulu is in the initial stages of producing The Devil in the White City as a dramatic series, perhaps starring Leonardo DiCaprio and perhaps directed by Martin Scorsese. In the meantime, just try to be like Burnham, and don’t do anything Holmes did.
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
One of the two books he wrote prior to ascending to the global stage, Dreams From My Father recounts Barack Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his years as a community organizer in Chicago, and an eye-opening sojourn to his father’s roots and extended family in Kenya. It is exceedingly well-written, and I can enthusiastically recommend the entire book to anyone.
I particularly like the reflections and anecdotes of chapter five, and most particularly the exchange with his friend Regina at a party after Obama gave his first speech. It raises a little-discussed question: Is leadership all about and for the people to be led, or is it all about and for the ego and advancement of the putative leader? And what exactly is it about words that make them so powerful?
For leaders and aspiring leaders, I especially recommend the middle chapters (seven through ten, most especially) chronicling his efforts—some successful, some not so much—to give voice to voiceless residents of the public housing projects on the South Side of Chicago. When he accepted the job after graduating from college, he really had no clear understanding of what community organizers did. He would soon learn that it was the hard work of leadership, and he would learn that he faced a welter of skepticism and cynicism from long-suffering residents, not to mention some hostility from their weary leaders. So the young man began in the only way he could: one conversation at a time, and one small undertaking here and another there, hoping for a little breakthrough. Eventually he got a few things done, and he set his sights on law school and a career in politics. The rest, of course, is history.
The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America
I suppose it is in the nature of leadership, requiring as it does a high degree of self-confidence, that leaders are so often and so thoroughly wrong and yet resist the facts and reasoning that would so easily convince them otherwise. That was certainly true of countless American politicians, Western settlers, and U.S. Army officers in their policy and treatment of our indigenous population, and it is plainly true of leadership in other fields as well.
In The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson excavates the history of native America. Along the way he identifies brilliant examples of leadership in the native population. At bottom his analysis is balanced and fair, and yet he finds innumerable examples of blind overreach, deliberate fraud, cultural arrogance, and brute insensitivity. Not surprisingly, he singles out President Andrew Jackson for particular criticism. Jackson's genocidal Trail of Tears uprooted thousands of Cherokees from Georgia in a forced march to the Oklahoma Territory, where many of their descendants live today.
One man, a retired Confederate colonel, remarked: "I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew." In 1609, Powhatan, chief of Tsenacommaca in the Virginia Tidewater, and better known as the father of Pocahontas, said something that is haunting still: "Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food?" Why, indeed.
Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover's remarkable memoir has stood atop the best-seller lists ever since it was published in early 2018, and no wonder. It is an incredible read—in parts, so outrageous you want to disbelieve it, and yet so vividly detailed and compelling you just shake your head.
The author survived childhood at the hands of a "survivalist," an abusive Mormon religious fanatic who trusts no one and is stockpiling food and fuel for the imminent End Times. So hostile is he to governmental authority that his daughter, born in 1986, lacks a birth certificate and is uncertain of her birthdate. In his eyes, all hospitals are filled with quacks and all universities with liberal socialists.
Not surprisingly, Westover is homeschooled, which is to say scarcely educated at all, by her mother, an unlicensed homeopathic midwife. After teaching herself enough math and grammar to take the ACT, young Tara manages to get into Brigham Young University, where she first learns of the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Eventually she goes on to study at Harvard and Cambridge, where she earns a Ph.D.
Her book is a scorching account of an abusive, reckless childhood in which she is forced to work dangerous jobs in a junkyard and is subject to profane outbursts and violent assaults by her older brother, who repeatedly calls her “a whore” and “nigga.” Beyond the gripping narrative, the book is an eloquent polemic on an extreme Right that sees a conspiracy under every rock and socialism wherever it looks. It also casts a bright light on America's cleavages: urban and rural, religious and secular, affluent and impoverished, educated and not. Along the way the author eloquently explains the rugged individualism of the range:. "There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion," she writes. "In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.” Her father, she writes, “was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama." All in all it's a fascinating if disturbing read, and I highly recommend it.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is the best-selling 1959 account of one of the most harrowing adventures of all time—the ill-fated but ultimately blessed voyage of the Endurance to Antarctica from 1914 to 1916. The mission of the expedition, to trek overland across the polar continent, had to be abandoned when the ship became marooned in pack ice and then slowly cracked and crumbled apart. Over the ensuing year and a half, Ernest Shackleton miraculously sustained his crew of twenty-eight on a diet of little more than seal and hope. Eventually the men found open water and rowed lifeboats amid floes and bergs for seven days to desolate, forsaken Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and a few others rowed more than seven hundred miles through gales and ferocious seas to South Georgia Island, from which they were able to return with a ship to rescue the other men four months later.
In addition to being a page-turning read and a phenomenal, entirely true adventure yarn, Endurance offers an object lesson in servant leadership in the midst of crisis. Among the insights:
Leaders must dedicate themselves first and foremost to the welfare of the people they lead; everything else is secondary. This will strike many hardened executives as counterintuitive, potentially undercutting the mission when the going gets tough. It is not. For both the Endurance and, a half-century later, the star-crossed flight of Apollo 13 to the moon, the safety of the men came first. (See also the blog post on my interview with Apollo 13 commander James Lovell.)
Diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Though all twenty-eight souls were men, they had little in common. “They varied from Cambridge University dons to Yorkshire fishermen,” Lansing writes. There were scientists, physicians, cooks, a carpenter, even a stowaway.
Optimism and confidence are essential to survival. Shackleton’s spirits never flagged. His optimism “set men’s souls on fire,” the author declares. Even in their harsh circumstances, crew members recorded their high spirits in diaries that survive today. Long past the point at which others would have given up hope, one officer wrote: “One of the finest days we have ever had. . . . a pleasure to be alive.”
Perseverance is the gold standard of success. Shackleton never gave up on himself, and his men never gave up on themselves.
Fear: Trump In the White House
Regardless of your political orientation, if you have any interest in leadership, you should read this book. On one level, it is a powerful exposé of the historic turbulence, distrust, casual dishonesty, willful whining, deliberate ignorance, and outright chaos that infects the administration of Donald J. Trump, and most people who read it will do so for that reason alone. But on another level altogether, it is a harrowing account of the repercussions of incompetent leadership—regardless of the venue or locus of the putative leader.
The author, Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story in 1974, and who has written eighteen other books on politics and policymaking at the highest levels of the U.S. government, has certainly done his homework. He and an aide recorded dozens of interviews with individuals having intimate, firsthand knowledge of discussions and decisions in the West Wing. This account of the first year and a half of the Trump administration is detailed, brutal, and damning, though the reader also gets an occasional glimpse of a real human being under all that orange hair. Also, several White House officials emerge from the story as thoughtful, careful individuals: Reince Priebus, who has the distinction of serving the shortest tenure in American history as a presidential chief of staff; Rex Tillerson, the former CEO and chairman of Exxon Mobil, who tried valiantly to serve as secretary of state; H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor who sought to impose a modicum of strategic thinking, and Gary Cohn, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs, who argued in vain against tariffs and for multilateral organizations, are the adults in the room.
As a case study in poor leadership, Fear paints a colorful picture of the carnage that inevitably follows in the wake of bad leadership, not the least of which is a litany of profane, vicious recriminations of the leader by the people closest to him. In the words of his top-level aides, the president of the United States is “a moron,” “a professional liar,” “an idiot” who “has gone off the rails,” “such a prick,” “a narcissist,” and a “third grader” who “doesn’t know how to make a decision”—and these are the words of his fanboys, the men Trump himself chose to run the government! This isn’t pretty reading—don’t even try to count the f-bombs—but it sure is hard to put down, and its lessons in the mirror on leadership are prodigious and profound.
Goebbels: A Biography
Joseph Goebbels is remembered today as the twentieth century’s master of propaganda. He was at Adolf Hitler’s side from the earliest days of German national socialism to the very end, when he and his wife, Magda, murdered their children and committed suicide in the führer's Berlin bunker the day after Hitler died by his own hand. Aware of Goebbels’s reputed legacy, and after reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (scroll down for my review), I sought out the Longerich volume, the most recent of several biographies of Goebbels, for its insights on the origin and growth of authoritarianism through propaganda.
Frankly, I was not completely rewarded. This book has its strengths, but I was looking for something more in terms of a deep understanding of mass indoctrination. Having now plowed my way through a 707-page doorstop, I still wonder how much of Germany’s embrace of Hitler and Naziism was a function of sophisticated propaganda and how much was a matter of economic privation and social isolation after the Versailles Treaty, or of Hitler’s charismatic personality (see my review below of Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions Into the Abyss by Laurence Rees), or of the iron fist of jack-booted totalitarianism, or of the universal instinct for community. My sense is more of the others. There’s no question that Goebbels sought to use, and succeeded in using, propaganda to promote and buttress his own career and influence. But how much the propaganda accounted for Nazi Germany’s tragic rise to European domination is open to question.
On the other hand, I have a much clearer understanding of narcissistic personality cults. Goebbels, who had earned a Ph.D. in the humanities (of all things), was nevertheless incapable of rigorous thinking. He had a deformed foot as well as a delusional mind. He suffered from a psychologically needy personality, and he was jilted by the love of his life—something he never quite got over. He was ambitious but profoundly narcissistic. His attachment to Hitler fed a desperate, insatiable need for affirmation, and Hitler knew it. The führer played Goebbels like a marionette, even to the point of spending days and whole weeks alone with Magda. One can only imagine the nature of those extended visits.
One reviewer of this book, citing Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization of Adolf Eichmann as the “banality of evil,” suggested that such a depiction would apply just as well to Goebbels, and I have to agree. He strikes me as the consummate bureaucrat—utterly sycophantic, implacably loyal, absurdly servile—but also morally bankrupt and as evil as evil can possibly be.
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History
John M. Barry
Few people appreciate it today, but a century ago World War I—the Great War, as it was known at the time—was only the second worst scourge for most Americans. The worst was an epidemic of influenza that would claim between twenty million and forty million fatalities, more than the war and more than any other epidemic in world history. And the most celebrated and influential scientist of the 1920s wasn't Einstein or Curie or Planck or Bohr. It was one William Henry Welch, a physician whose contributions to medical research were so profound they got to the root of the epidemic.
Of special note, Welch did little or no original research of his own. Instead, he synthesized the research of others in such a way that his peers could see something more than the sum of individual research projects. Even more to the point as a model of leadership, Welch inspired uncounted young physicians to take a methodical, scientific, empirical approach to the diagnosis of disease. He asked questions in such a way as to ignite curiosity, link relevant findings together, and determine causation.
In The Great Influenza, John M. Barry paints a colorful picture of Welch: "Like an Escher drawing, his life both represented that of others and simultaneously defined the lives of those who followed him, and those who followed them, and those who followed them, down to the present." To me, that is a working definition of inspiration, and the distinction between mere influence and the magic of inspiration.
I especially resonated to Barry's analysis of Welch's genius, which Barry described as probing vertically and seeing horizontally. The former allows you to discover new information; the latter enables you to assimilate and weave together. The singular question connecting the two gets to the heart of the matter. It is simply: "So what?" Barry writes: "The greatest challenge of science, its art, lies in asking an important question and framing it in a way that allows it to be broken into manageable pieces, into experiments that can be conducted that ultimately lead to answers." Big stuff, and lots of it, in this book.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hard Choices is a focused chronicle of Hillary Clinton's four years in Foggy Bottom as the U.S. secretary of state, from 2009 to 2013, as well as a global tour of the geopolitical challenges the United States faced (and continues to face). It doesn't reach back beyond a passing glance here and there to her childhood, education, or years as first lady of Arkansas and the United States. Nor, having been published in 2014, does it address her 2016 campaign for the presidency.
What it does do is bring the reader into her years of face-to-face diplomacy and realpolitik, and it provides vivid examples and context for important leadership lessons on dedication, perseverance, and commitment to values. I can recommend it to friend and open-minded foe alike. Unless you are an irrational, head-in-the-sand ideologue or partisan, you will likely find her spirited emphasis on human rights and articulate promotion of democratic values, free trade, and economic development to be invigorating. The behind-the-scenes descriptions of real diplomacy are colorful and fascinating. Her account of Benghazi will be controversial, but at the very least it presents her perspective and lays things out in an orderly, coherent manner. I thought the final chapters on technology and on human rights were alone worth the price of the book. Best of all, she tells story after story, and either she had some talented ghost writers or she is a much, much better writer than her husband, whose memoir I also recently read. (See my assessment of My Life by Bill Clinton below.) All in all, highly recommended.
Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
This is a colorful, engaging biography of a real swashbuckler. T.E. Lawrence was an endlessly fascinating, deeply mysterious, and extraordinarily complex man who arguably did more than anyone to predefine today's fault lines in the Middle East. By extrapolation, Hero is also a story of freelance leadership with profound lessons on initiative, risk, and enterprise.
Today most people recall Lawrence as portrayed by Peter O'Toole, riding a camel and wearing an Arab kaffiyeh, in David Lean's 1962 epic movie Lawrence of Arabia, but there is so much more to the story, and Michael Korda captures it well. An archaeologist by training, Lawrence went to Cairo in 1916 as an intelligence officer. At the time the Middle East was still controlled by the Ottoman Empire, but the Turkish influence had been waning for a long time. Commercial quantities of oil were discovered in Egypt only eight years earlier and wouldn't be discovered in the Arab peninsula, home to rival nomadic tribes locked in poverty and under the thumb of the Ottomans, for two more decades.
Essentially inventing modern guerrilla warfare, Lawrence collaborated with Hussein bin Ali, the sherif of Mecca (portrayed by Omar Sharif in the movie), and his son Prince (later Emir) Faisal (portrayed by Alec Guinness), in an insurgency that confounded the Ottomans and compelled them to withdraw from territory they had controlled for centuries. Modern readers can perhaps best understand Lawrence by Korda's comparison of him to Princess Diana. Korda writes: "They were both magnetically attractive—she was the most often photographed person of her generation, he was the most often photographed, drawn, painted, and sculptured person of his; they both had a natural instinct for adopting a flattering pose in the presence of photographers and artists without even seeming to know they were doing it; they both played cat and mouse with press, while complaining of being victimized by it; they both simultaneously sought and fled celebrity; they both—always a tricky task in Britain—managed to cross class lines whenever they chose to, she by making friends of her servants, he by serving in the ranks of the RAF and the army. Both of them were on the one hand intensely vulnerable, and on the other, exceedingly tough." Tragically, they both died in motor vehicle crashes.
His Excellency: George Washington
Joseph J. Ellis
This compact biography dashes myth after myth about America’s pre-eminent founding father. No, he didn’t wear wooden false teeth. No, he didn’t fling a coin across the Potomac River. No, he never chopped down a cherry tree. But what he did do was phenomenal. He united the fractious colonies and inspired selfless dedication among the rag-tag soldiers he led. In shunning the mantle of nobility and stepping down after two terms as president, he earned the begrudging respect of England’s King George, who came to regard Washington as “the greatest man in the world.”
The irony of Washington is that although modern Americans regard him as a cold, aloof, remote historical figure, he was in fact approachable and accessible, and he was in touch with his emotional core two centuries before most American men found their own way there.
Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions Into the Abyss
Though certainly not for everyone, and especially not for the faint-of-heart, Laurence Rees's study of charisma, leadership, and the inexplicable appeal of Adolf Hitler to the German people is fascinating and provocative. It tackles—and offers intriguing answers to—the question of how someone like Hitler could take hold of an entire population of educated, thinking people.
Like the nineteenth century German sociologist Max Weber who coined the term, Rees views charisma not as a personality trait but as a power dynamic between a leader and the led. It is a function therefore of the need to be led. Today, three generations removed from the scourge of Naziism, we can view videotapes of Hitler giving a speech and see a madman, but many Germans, caught in the grip of humiliation and poverty of the 1930s, instead saw a messiah.
Rees's conclusion: Charisma is in the eye of the beholder, and it can be very dangerous. In my workshops and classes on leadership, I say much the same thing. When a charismatic leader presents himself, question your instincts and then question them again. It doesn't always end well. (See also my review of Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich above and my review of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer below.)
I Am Malala
I tore through this 2013 book in a couple of days, and I expect you will, too. The author was but a teenager when she wrote it, and yet she had the wisdom of an elder. She is the youngest person and the only girl ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 2014. Having survived multiple gunshots in an assassination attempt, she has traveled the world to speak out against the Taliban’s intolerance of education for girls. In the pages of this book she writes insightfully of the Pakistani culture and its vulnerability to radical exploitation: "We Pashtuns love shoes but don't love the cobbler; we love our scarves but do not respect the weaver. Manual workers have made a great contribution to our society but received no recognition, and this is the reason so many of them joined the Taliban—to finally achieve status and power." Something similar can be said of many cultures, both national and corporate. This is a marvelous, inspiring read by a young lady well beyond her years, and I highly recommend it.
Ike: An American Hero
This is a fabulous, readable biography of an unlikely general and president, as well as a fascinating chronicle of World War II, the birth of NATO, the horrors of Joseph McCarthy's red scare, the civil rights struggle of the '50s, and the brink of the Vietnam War. It is also a blessed recollection of the Republican Party my grandmother knew and a story of quiet perseverance.
For sixteen years, Dwight D. Eisenhower labored in obscurity as a major in the U.S. Army. No one expected significant achievement of him, let alone historic greatness. He lacked any experience commanding anything of significant size. Then he advanced rapidly, and within a few years he was suddenly commanding the largest amphibious assault in world history.
In Ike: An American Hero, Michael Korda paints a rich portrait of Eisenhower's quiet but strong style of leadership. Writing almost in a kind of bas relief, he brings out Eisenhower by contrasting him with Generals Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and even Erwin Rommel. Eisenhower was none of the foregoing, but if I were a soldier I would take his leadership any day. To be sure, as an orator Eisenhower was no Demosthenes or Cicero. Korda quotes a popular parody of Ike as Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: "I haven't checked these figures but eighty-seven years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea that they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement, and the program that every individual is as good as every other individual."
Fair enough, but as a general Eisenhower defeated the Axis Powers, and as president he ended the Korean War and nudged the Republican Party, and the United States, toward fulfilling the nation’s promise of equality to black Americans and toward recognizing America's proper role on the global stage as defender-in-chief of liberty everywhere. In a nationally televised farewell speech three days before his presidency ended, Eisenhower warned against the growing "military-industrial complex" and against uncontrolled exploitation of environmental resources, both of which threaten us still. Not bad for a man with a garbled mouth. I enthusiastically recommend this book for any serious biography or history buff.
This book blazed the trail for the genre of memoirs by professional athletes. It is the diary of Jerry Kramer, an offensive lineman on the legendary Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, perhaps the best American football team ever. The narrative builds like fiction, culminating in the phenomenal Ice Bowl game for the National Football League championship improbably won on a quarterback sneak in the final seconds. Kramer devotes much of his book to the team’s love-hate relationship with their coach, Vince Lombardi. (See also my recommendation for When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss below.) Lombardi was very much what we describe as a 5th Degree leader. He stands today as a case study in powerful servant leadership.
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
Chris Matthews isn’t one of my favorite talking heads on TV—he is too strident and too disrespectful of his guests, for my taste—but he turns out to be a terrific biographer. His life of John F. Kennedy is a riveting, insightful, fascinating read that doesn’t flinch from JFK’s emotional isolation, casual extramarital affairs, and diplomatic naïveté.
Neither does it shrink from portraying Kennedy as a profile in courage. The book’s surprising twists: JFK’s quiet admiration for Richard Nixon; his bold rejection of the Pentagon’s advice to bomb Cuba during the missile crisis; his frequent disagreement with, and resentment of, his father’s meddling; his warm relationship with red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, and his muscular twisting of arms on Capitol Hill. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passion for politics and the corridors of power.
Jesus: A Biography from a Believer
Jesus of Nazareth is and always will be one of the singular leaders in world history. His life—patchy and sketchy though it appears to us after two thousand years of perfervid belief, irreligious doubt, scriptural translation, and apostolic interpretation, debate, and re-interpretation—deserves to be studied by secular as well as ecclesiastical students of leadership.
More books have been written about Jesus than anyone else in history. I have read only a handful of them. Of them, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (scroll down for my review) will likely appeal to secularists, as its account rests on historical record as well as the canonical gospels. Christians who prefer an exclusively Bible-based biographical account will find Paul Johnson’s Jesus: A Biography from a Believer more to their liking. Both books are readable and concise.
I personally resonated to Johnson’s vivid depiction of the civil, economic, and technological state of things at the time of Jesus’s life. In contrast to our own age, little had changed over the millennia before Jesus. But disruption was in the air. Roman engineers had invented cement, from which they could build superb roads, bridges, and aqueducts that survive even today. Rome itself was emerging from the cocoon of a republic to become an empire that dominated the entire Mediterranean and enforced its laws by means of fierce violence. Thanks to the evisceration of pirates, trade over the Mediterranean was brisk. In Palestine, King Herod amassed great wealth for himself but also built and enlarged public facilities like ports, baths, temples, and shopping plazas. It was into this world that Jesus was born and would live and serve.
This is my favorite biography of all time, and David McCullough is my favorite biographer. More than just that, he is a national treasure. He has cogently challenged the way history has been taught in American schools—with its endless, numbing emphasis on red-letter dates, wars, treaties and the like—and he is right.
History buffs will tear through this extraordinary 700-page book in a week or two. A gifted writer with a remarkable talent for both narrative tension and historical detail, McCullough has crafted a masterpiece, a compulsively readable chronicle of a little-understood founding father and the world in which he lived. The anecdote of his daughter’s mastectomy without anesthesia is powerful and poignant.
John Adams embodied important aspects of leadership, but, like all leaders, he was flawed and imperfect as well. He could be temperamental and brusque, and he was notoriously vainglorious. But his romantic marriage was a thing of beauty. McCullough relies heavily on the trove of personal, even intimate letters that Adams exchanged with his wife, Abigail. Their love and commitment was inspiring.
I recommend you read the book before you watch the HBO series (available in libraries everywhere), but the TV production is also mesmerizing, with splendid performances by Paul Giamatti as the passionate if self-absorbed John Adams, Laura Linney as the strong-willed Abigail Adams, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin. Whatever you do, read this book!
Almost two millennia after Julius Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Forum, the brilliant American patriots Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were talking about the men they most admired throughout history. At one point Jefferson showed Hamilton portraits of three men he regarded as the greatest of all time: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.
Hamilton could only shake his head. No, he said. The greatest man of all time was Julius Caesar. Certainly one can quibble; many today would say Alexander or Jesus or Gandhi. But there is no question that Caesar’s legacy has survived: His name evolved into kaiser in Germany and czar in Russia.
In this engagingly written biography, Philip Freeman brings the reader back to ancient Rome—to its traditions, its personalities, its rivalries—as he restores Caesar to a place of honor atop a pantheon of famous leaders. Freeman, a professor of classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, writes with grace and a masterful command of his subject. There are plenty of biographies of Caesar out there, and many of them are fine. This one is particularly accessible and readable. (See also my review of Cicero, by Anthony Everitt, above.)
Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
Granted, this biography may not make the perfect beach read, but boy what a story it is. I picked it up out of sheer curiosity; I knew very little about the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union whose name has become synonymous with communism. Victor Sebestyen, a British journalist who has written for The New York Times, remedies that. His biography of V.I. Lenin vividly captures its subject as a private man, as a revolutionary, and as a ruthless tyrant.
We learn that Lenin was quite ordinary—ironically, even bourgeois—in many respects. During his fifteen years of exile in western Europe, he enjoyed hiking in the Swiss Alps and listening to advocates for one cause or another at Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. He loved to laugh; his wife said she fell in love with him because of his sense of humor. He adored women, and, like many men of the era, openly enjoyed the favors of both his wife and a mistress, who, counterintuitively, lovingly befriended each other.
But we also see Lenin as we might expect: a brutal dictator with no compunctions about dispatching anyone whose presence or voice he found inconvenient, who willingly and deliberately lied to impose his own demands, who violently stifled freedom of the press, speech, religion and assembly, who starved people into submission, and who stole many millions of rubles in gold and jewels to enrich the Soviet state if not also himself. We also see his singleminded determination to win, and the cold, calculating drive he brought to the task.
The critical praise for this biography, published in 2017, has been lavish. The conservative National Review called it “brilliant and compelling.” The New York Times likened it to “a Russian version of ‘House of Cards’” that precedes “Frank Underwood’s cynicism and murderous ambition by a hundred years.” The reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor declared it was “the best biography I’ve read in years.” To all of that, I can only add: Yes.
Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game
John Feinstein and Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach was the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics during their glory years. Like the best coaches everywhere—Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson and others—he appreciates the Zenlike importance of a team as more than the sum of the individual players. Given a choice between starting a team of the five best players or a team with five players who played their best basketball together, he would take the latter. His memoir is excellent. With the able assistance of John Feinstein, he is as much a raconteur as a coach. Read it for sheer enjoyment and for insights on leadership.
Life Itself: A Memoir
By some cosmic coincidence I began reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself in the spring of 2013, and a few days later, as I was midway through it, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic died. Amid the outpouring of warm encomiums, I continued reading. I was loving every page.
For the Millennials who stop by this site, and who may be unfamiliar with the name, Ebert was the first well-known and always the most influential film critic in journalism. His reviews could make or break a movie within days of its opening. Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, and paired with cross-town rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune for a syndicated weekly PBS program, Ebert insisted that moviegoers find on-screen characters to be believable, though of course sometimes—as in movies like Jurassic Park and ET—believability paradoxically required a deliberate suspension of disbelief.
Ebert never set out to become a film critic. He majored in journalism at the University of Illinois and then began reporting for the local newspaper. A few months after landing a job at the Sun-Times, a critic’s beat opened up and Ebert was assigned to fill it. He pursued it with everything he had, and the world noticed.
This memoir is absolutely splendid. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll drop your jaw. You'll nod in deep, knowing agreement. I just adored the anecdotes involving Ann Landers, Robert Mitchum, Sophia Loren, Stephen Spielberg, Andrew Greeley, Studs Terkel, John Wayne, and more. The chapters on alcoholism and his mother are phenomenal, too. Above all, Ebert delves deep into his love-hate relationship with Siskel to reveal that their bond was only slightly hate, and almost entirely love.
Do, do, do read this book, as much for its observations on human nature as for its commentary on movies.
David Herbert Donald
This is an excellent treatment of the life of Abraham Lincoln, and I highly recommend it for history buffs. Professor Donald brings you into the Illinois frontier of the 1830s and 1840s, into the small-town squares for the legendary debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, into the White House as the Civil War rages all around, and even into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater. It is history writing by a master at the zenith of his craft. (It isn't my favorite biography of Lincoln, however. See my review of A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr., above, for that honor.)
Its main shortcoming, in my opinion, is inadequate attention to the full sweep of Lincoln's legacy. In scarcely four years in office, Lincoln not only waged war, he also championed and enacted a legislative agenda that included homesteading, transcontinental railroads, canals, land-grant universities, and the first steps toward creating national parks, not to mention adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment—all while the government was under siege. He truly was an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. Without him at that time and place, it's doubtful we would have the United States of America today.
Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt
Aida D. Donald
I favor modestly sized biographies for their focus and accessibility, and this is one of the best. The author, the widow of the late Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald (we list two of his books here) and a fine historian in her own right, captures the big life of America’s first modern president.
Born to wealth but determined to earn his station, TR is rancher, author, soldier, father, politician, hunter, and explorer. In everything he does, he casts a long shadow of leadership. (See also my reviews below of Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough, of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, and of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919 by Douglas Brinkley.)
Long Walk to Freedom
Long Walk to Freedom is a magisterial autobiography by a magisterial and historic leader. I wish I had read it when it was published in the 1990s—and certainly before I visited South Africa to speak in 2000. The Boston Globe suggested that this book should be read by every person alive, and I certainly agree. In my own lifetime of reading, I cannot recall a more important book or a more humane, compassionate book that tells us more about servant leadership, the human spirit, and the power of empathy and redemption.
I do have a couple of little qualms, however. I wish Mandela had addressed (if only briefly) the Sullivan Principles, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and his own regard for Thabo Mbeki, who eventually succeeded him as president. Also, because this book was published in the mid-1990s, it couldn’t discuss his tenure as president, or the vital role played by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the World Cup of rugby improbably won by South Africa in 1995 (and the story of the 2009 feature film Invictus), or Robert Mugabe’s tyranny and the popular support for Morgan Tsvangirai in neighboring Zimbabwe, which became clear a few years later.
But these are mere quibbles in an otherwise splendid memoir. All in all, Long Walk to Freedom is indeed a book that everyone (and especially anyone who aspires to lead) should read.
Mao: The Unknown Story
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Revolutionaries and demagogues on the left or right can enjoy a romanticized image that softens, glorifies, and popularizes their presence in the modern imagination. Mao Zedong is one of many such cases. To redress the balance we are fortunate to have Mao by Jung Chang, who was a member of the Red Guard as an adolescent, and her husband, historian Jon Halliday. It is a refreshing antidote. Mao, the authors demonstrate, was driven by neither idealism nor ideology, and he was not a sincere communist, nor did he care about the well-being of the populace. Rather, he was all about his own political advancement, and he was ruthless in pursuing it. Seventy million Chinese died under his tyrannical rule in peacetime, half of them by starvation in a forced famine, and millions of others in brutal labor camps. As a child whose father was a mid-level Communist Party official, Chang lived comfortably, and she was excited to join the Red Guard at the age of fourteen. But she soon awakened to the harsh reality, when her parents were abused and humiliated in the Cultural Revolution. Of this book The New York Times Book Review wrote: "This magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao's claim to sympathy or legitimacy." It certainly does that. Highly recommended, especially for the would-be idolators.
Mornings on Horseback
Theodore Roosevelt is one of my ten or twelve favorite figures from history. He belongs in the pantheon of Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill, Mandela and a handful of others. Not only was he a youthful, vigorous U.S. president, but his policies arguably saved America from its worst instincts—plutocracy, exploitation, greed, rancor—and thus enabled Western civilization to triumph when confronting its severest test four decades later and half a world away.
But his vigor, let alone his success, was never a foregone conclusion. As a youngster, Roosevelt was asthmatic, myopic, and sickly. As a young man, he experienced the rare and unthinkable tragedy of losing his mother and his wife on the same day. He often escaped New York City for extended sojourns on his ranch in the Dakota Territory. Though he was born to affluence, his early career more closely resembled that of a bureaucrat. Even his nomination by the Republican Party for vice president on the 1900 ticket headed by President William McKinley was a fluke; it was a political ploy to move him out of the way. Alas, a few months later, McKinley fell to an assassin’s bullet, and Roosevelt was suddenly president. The rest is history.
Mornings on Horseback focuses on just seventeen years of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, from 1869 to 1886, well before his ascendancy to fame and power. David McCullough, a national treasure whose life of John Adams (scroll up for my review) is perhaps my favorite biography ever, tells a story of familial pride, of urbane and worldly circumstances, and of a yen for adventure. It is a great story, and this is a great book. (See also my reviews of Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida Donald, above, and of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919 by Douglas Brinkley, below.)
I was especially drawn to the role of focus, curiosity, passion, and courage in Roosevelt’s psyche. These four things, I believe, are the sine qua non of leadership, and they may as well be a working definition of the engagement that leaders seek to nurture among their adherents. In practically every aspect of his life, these four lodestars are evident in abundance. To my thinking they account for, and explain, a great deal.
My Beloved World
Many justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have written their memoirs before, of course, but none of them have been as remotely personal. In this 2013 memoir, Sotomayor brings the reader thisclose to her turbulent childhood on the violent, drug-infested, gang-ridden streets of the south Bronx—one can disagree with her jurisprudence, but we should all be thankful we have that perspective on the Supreme Court—to Princeton University, the Yale Law School, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where she learned the importance of communicating by the power of both emotion and logic. (After she began appealing to juries emotionally as well as rationally, she never again lost a case.)
A plodding reader—I am constantly editing every writer's sentences—I tore through this book in thirty-six hours. I began reading it late on a Saturday afternoon and finished at breakfast Monday morning. Yes, it's that good.
Readers are always well-advised to approach a presidential memoir gingerly, and Bill Clinton's is certainly no exception to that heuristic. What does he include? What does he gloss over? What mistakes does he admit and atone for? What errors does he twist himself into a pretzel to deny or excuse? As another rule of thumb, the length of a presidential memoir is typically more directly proportional to the excuses and rationalizations it contains than to the insights and anecdotes it shares. Suffice it to say that this book is very, very long.
Still, My Life has moments of candor, kernels of wisdom, and charming stories of a small-town childhood. Clinton writes: "I learned a lot from the stories my uncle, aunts, and grandparents told me: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can't be judged only by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain." All true enough, and all relevant to Clinton's life and presidency.
Napoleon: A Life
One of the greatest leaders of all time, and paradoxically one of the most lamentable, Napoleon lived a life of extraordinary achievement and impact. Today, two hundred years later, millions of people routinely rely on his precepts and precedents without thinking of him. Leaders and aspiring leaders in all spheres—politics, military, business, government—can benefit mightily from studying his example. Fortunately there are thousands of biographies of him (almost as many as of Abraham Lincoln). They are getting better, too. In the last few years a burst of scholarship has capitalized on the recently released trove of correspondence between Napoleon and his generals, allies, other heads of state, and of course his wives and mistresses. We now know his true thoughts and intentions, inasmuch as he revealed himself to others.
Napoleon: A Life is an uncommonly well-researched and well-written biography, and I highly recommend it. An epic chronicle that surpasses eight hundred pages, it nonetheless reads like a novel; I breezed through it in two and a half weeks (with a few days idle nursing a head cold). The author, British historian Anthony Roberts, has a scholar’s command of his subject in matters large and small. He lucidly explains the role that Napoleon played in permanently codifying the noble reforms of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution while discarding the worst impulses that led to the Reign of Terror. “The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon,” Roberts writes. “To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.”
Roberts has a shrewd eye for fascinating detail, too. We learn the derivation of Napoleon’s surname (Bonaparte, from the Italian for “better part,” apparently owing to a schism in the family some years before his birth), the amount of wine he brought with him on his invasion of Egypt (more than 31,000 cases), his incredible energy (often awaking to work after three hours of sleep), his libertine sexuality (though it seems everyone was abed with everyone else anyway), and his innermost frustrations and exasperations—especially in exile, first on Elba and later on St. Helena, where he died of stomach cancer at the age of 51.
Napoleon’s leadership deserves to be emulated everywhere. Roberts trumpets Napoleon’s “capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds.” Isn’t that, after all, the magic of successful leadership?
Open: An Autobiography
This is probably my favorite sports memoir ever. Andre Agassi writes very well, but more importantly he thinks clearly and feels deeply, he is authentic and emotionally transparent, and he offers profound lessons for all of us—especially leaders.
Here's one example: "It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice."
Here's another: "Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting meaning. This is why we're here. To make each other feel safe."
And another, especially insightful for anyone who has experienced the phenomenon of lonely at the top: "Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer's opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They're inches away. In tennis you're on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement."
A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir
Among the world’s first naturalists, John Muir founded the Sierra Club (disclosure: I am an active member), and he was a driving force behind the Gilded Age’s appreciation of nature and the creation of national parks. Here, the United States blazed a trail for other countries around the world. Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite were the very first national parks anywhere. Before too long, nations across the globe were replicating our “best idea,” in the words of the English political philosopher Lord Bryce. Today there are more than six thousand national parks in nearly one hundred countries. While the concept of national parks was borne of others, Muir lent his prestige, energy, and initiative to the effort.
In A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster chronicles Muir’s life (he lived from 1838 to 1914) with grace and elan. I swept through this 466-page biography in just three or four days. You get to know Muir as if he were your favorite uncle, whom you see all too infrequently, who leads a life of intrepid adventure, and who tells the best stories ever. I wish he were at my Thanksgiving table every year.
Born in Scotland and raised in Wisconsin—he had the keen intellect and the good sense to attend the University of Wisconsin, of which I am an alumnus—Muir rejected the fundamentalist religious beliefs of his pious father, and instead found the divine in nature. Peripatetic by habit, he traveled widely—often on foot, and often with minimal provisions, but always with a notebook and pencil. Not quite thirty, and amid the ruins of the Civil War, he walked from Indianapolis to Savannah and then, by boat and train and boat again, he traversed the Florida peninsula and continued on to Cuba. Then he booked passage to the new state of California, where, apart from travels, he was to live out his life.
Most of his time in California was spent in the Bay Area (especially Alhambra Valley, where he rests) and Yosemite Valley, whose waterfalls and towering, sheer granite bluffs represented to him, as they probably do to most visitors even today, the apotheosis of natural beauty. Worster recounts the wonderful anecdote of a visit by President Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside four days on a 1903 trip to California for the sake of touring Yosemite on horseback with the famed naturalist. Together with a couple of other men, Roosevelt and Muir rode up into the canyon's wild rims overlooking Yosemite Valley. There they camped out on the precipice of Glacier Point, just west of Half Dome, now a popular tourist destination of spectacular beauty. Muir used the campfire to lobby for more national parks. Fortunately, the president listened.
Muir and Roosevelt would not always see eye to eye. Years later, after the earthquake, the burgeoning city of San Francisco needed water and electricity. To answer both demands, business interests championed damming Hetch Hetchy Valley, just to the north of Yosemite Valley and its scenic equal. To the horror of Muir and other environmentalists, Roosevelt equivocated, though it would take two more presidential administrations for the dam to be built.
A few years ago my daughter and I visited the massive O'Shaughnessy Dam, which now impounds the wild Tuolumne River. I looked over the lake behind it and wondered what erstwhile beauty—a deep cavern, an exquisite meadow filled with wildflower, fierce rapids on the Tuolumne, and fulsome, ferocious waterfalls—lay hidden beneath the water’s calm surface. One can only wish that someday the concrete monolith will be blasted to smithereens and Hetch Hetchy Valley rendered beautiful once more.
This is an excellent book, and Muir’s life serves as a splendid model for the passion that goes into successful leadership. (See also my review of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919 by Douglas Brinkley, below.)
Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
Late in the retired thirty-third president's life, when he had nothing to lose and a lot to say, Harry S. Truman sat down with Merle Miller for extended conversations on just about everything. As was his wont, he spoke in the plain language of the plain people on the edge of the Great Plains in western Missouri. Miller tape recorded it all and rendered the best parts in this wonderful book.
I happened to pick it up in Tiburon, California, on a leisurely family vacation drive up the Pacific coast. Night after night, until we got to Seattle, I would happily retire with this book. Few presidents—indeed, few politicians and especially few businesspeople—speak with the down-home clarity and candor that Truman did. Moreover, his abiding sense of humility and humanity are just so refreshing in an age of hubris and inhumanity, you can't help love the man.
Reagan: The Life
H.W. Brands, the noted University of Texas historian, is a journeyman of the biographical art. If he is not quite as engaging as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, or Walter Isaacson, he is still very good; and Reagan: The Life is a readable and incisive biography. It is reportorial and somewhat analytical but not polemical, which may suit many readers just fine.
Brands captures Reagan's optimism, faith, humor, and pluck quite well, and his final assessment on Reagan's presidency is both fair and compelling. Nancy Reagan emerges as a loving, elegant, devoted, even doting first lady, but her combative relationship with Donald Regan, in part fueled by a San Francisco astrologer, was unfortunate.
Brands concludes that Reagan was unaware of the diversion to Nicaraguan Contras of money from the sale of weapons to Iran, but that perhaps his disdain for detail was partly responsible. Reagan’s exasperation with John Poindexter and Oliver North comes through loud and clear, his commitment to principle is clear, and his devotion to Nancy is plain. But so much more is left unsaid. I wanted a fuller sense of key West Wing relationships, with Colin Powell, George Shultz, and James Baker most especially, but also beyond politics, with his grown children, and, above all, with himself.
No one can answer those questions with finality, but a good biographer can try, as McCullough did so well with John Adams, Chernow did so well with John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton, and Isaacson did so well with Steve Jobs. I cannot compare this book with other biographies on Ronald Reagan, as it was my first, but now I want to read the biographies that were previously written by Lou Cannon, Stephen Hayward, and Richard Reeves.
Richard M. Nixon
The biographer's art is a delicate one, especially when writing about modern, tragic figures. Readers already know how the subject's life turned out, so there can be no narrative tension. Many aspects of the subject's personality and temperament are also well established, and readers may already have unshakeable attitudes about the subject.
Rising to these challenges is a tall order. Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew succeeds admirably. It is incisive and fair, and it is so well written it is hard to put down. (I'm a slow reader, habitually underscoring passages and jotting notes in margins, but still managed to read this book in a couple of days.)
Published in 2007 as part of The American Presidents Series, it doesn't flinch from Nixon's personal pathologies or moral turbidity, but it does acknowledge his considerable accomplishments in office and his uncanny capacity for reinventing himself, even after resigning the presidency, when he emerged as a well-respected elder on global affairs and U.S. foreign policy. Drew concludes that the Vietnam War led inexorably to the Watergate scandal, but that Nixon's paranoia was fuel to the flame. "The events that caused Nixon's downfall commenced as soon as he became president, and came from within his soul," she writes.
Few persons knew Nixon better than Henry Kissinger, who later remarked: "Can you imagine what this man would have been if someone loved him?" I highly recommend this book, especially for anyone under the age of 50 who lacks direct recollection of Watergate, and especially for anyone who must cope with zealous, malicious, or paranoid leaders. (See also my review of Being Nixon, by Evan Thomas, above.)
The Right Stuff
One of my favorite true adventure stories of all time, The Right Stuff chronicles the search for and the training of America's first seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
Drawn mainly from the ranks of fighter jocks competing for speed and altitude records, the Project Mercury astronauts were specimens of manhood—virile, adventurous, competitive. Tom Wolfe interviewed all of them and their wives at length, and he also got to know Chuck Yeager, another fighter jock who was deemed ineligible for the astronaut corps because he hadn't graduated from college.
On reading the book and viewing the subsequent Philip Kaufman movie starring Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid, I couldn't help think back to the discredited Great Man Thesis of leadership advanced in the mid-nineteenth century by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. It posits that leaders are leaders because they possess certain rare attributes and talents. Unfortunately, altogether too many books, articles, and websites imprison themselves in this simple and wrongheaded notion, and I fear that readers of books like The Right Stuff may, as well. Just don't.
The reality is that, aside from a handful of essential qualities, leadership emerges because of what leaders do and because of what people need from leaders, and it thrives in the space between the leader and the led. (See also my review of Rocket Men by Robert Kurson below, my review of Apollo 13 under Movies on Leadership, and the post on my conversation with Jim Lovell in my blog on this site.)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
William L. Shirer
The New York Times heralded this essential account of Nazi Germany as “one of the most important works of history of our time,” and I most certainly concur. Alas, I waited until 2016 to read it, when I was alarmed by the growing cult-like following of Donald J. Trump; the parallels were too many and too conspicuous to ignore. (Three years later, I am still alarmed, but I would argue that Adolf Hitler was a far more effective leader than Trump can ever hope to be.)
Shirer, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was present throughout the rise of the Nazis, and he further informed his epic account with documents captured from the Third Reich’s archives at the end of the war. Much of the 1,143-page book is riveting, eyewitness reporting. Though naturally alarming, Shirer's history includes numerous insights on leadership that Hitler understood better than most, and that any leader—one hopes with genuine nobility of purpose—can extract and apply.
Among many examples is Hitler's appreciation of oratory as the energy of leadership. "The broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech," he wrote in Mein Kampf. "All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses; they are not the lemonade-like outpourings of the literary aesthetes and drawing-room heroes."
This insight has two implications. For leaders, it underscores the importance of communicating your agenda with clarity, credibility, coherence, and conviction. For everyone, it stands as a reminder of the evil that demagoguery can bring about; we must always be alert to would-be, wanna-be tyrants who use inflammatory, populist oratory to aid and abet their incendiary, angry purposes.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
This riveting story is both a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt after he left the White House and the remarkable tale of his exploration of Amazonian jungle never before visited by civilized men. Roosevelt came perilously close to death on the journey. In retrospect, none of the explorers should have survived. Millard, a former National Geographic writer, crafts an engaging narrative you won’t put down.
I stumbled across The River of Doubt in the audio section of my local public library and began listening to it on errands and in Kennedy Expressway traffic jams. That wasn't enough time, so I got the book and tore through it page after page. Someone on Goodreads called TR “the original badass,” and I think that's just about right. But what a badass he was—and to think that, as the scion of a wealthy businessman, he could have led a life of sedentary comfort! I like to fantasize what he would have been like had he lived today. My guess is he would already have walked on Mars, cured cancer, and written Beethoven's Tenth Symphony.
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon
This page-turning account of Apollo 8 fifty years ago recalls an adventure so unlikely, so risky, it defies full appreciation today—and indeed was all but forgotten until Robert Kurson rescued it. The backstory is important: 1968 was, to borrow Queen Elizabeth's insult to 1992, our own annus horribilis. The United States suffered heavy losses in the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War; civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential aspirant Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within weeks of each other; CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visited Vietnam and concluded the war could not be won; in South Carolina, police killed three African American protesters in what came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre; in Chicago, the Democratic National Convention ended in violent chaos and melee—and on and on.
Meanwhile, NASA decided to risk the lives of three astronauts atop a new, untested Saturn rocket on an unprecedented, hurried trip to the moon without a landing module. What could go wrong? Though the astronauts had only a few months to train, they made the trip successfully, and it changed history. The Soviet Union had chosen to delay its own trip by a couple of months, and the subsequent humiliation to Moscow obviated any lunar trip by cosmonauts. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders—all of whom are still alive and lucid, and all of whom gave multiple interviews to the author—became the first persons to escape the immediate gravity of Earth, the first to see our planet as a lovely, blue, cloud-shrouded disk afloat in the black of space, the first to orbit the moon, the first to see the far side of the moon, and the first to view an earthrise.
Big lessons here on the risk and initiative so characteristic of large leadership. (See also my review of The Right Stuff above, my review of Apollo 13 under Movies on Leadership, and the post on my conversation with Jim Lovell in my blog on this site.)
Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior and Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty
As a power forward for the New York Knicks and as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson won thirteen National Basketball Association championships—more than anyone else, by far—and as an author he has written almost as many books. Sacred Hoops and Eleven Rings (the number refers to the championships he won as a coach) are just two of them; like the others, they are excellent.
Jackson, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and, from his North Dakota childhood, a student of Lakota philosophy, takes sport to a profoundly deep level. His insights, often counter-intuitive, apply to any leadership endeavor. In Sacred Hoops he emphasizes the necessity for large purpose: “The most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players' need to connect with something larger than themselves." In Eleven Rings he stresses the importance of treating each player as an individual and always respecting each person's essential dignity. He recalls the infamous meltdown by Scottie Pippen during the 1994 playoffs. Jackson had directed Pippen to throw the ball to teammate Toni Kukoc for a last-second shot, but Pippen instead threw a tantrum, refused, and sat pouting on the bench. A substitute took Pippen's place. Kukoc's shot was good, and the Bulls won. Jackson could have fined Pippen, but he let the team resolve the issue by talking through their feelings. It worked.
Some years later Jackson reflected on teamwork in an interview. He said: "The real reason the Bulls won six NBA championships in nine years is that we plugged into the power of oneness instead of the power of one man. Sure, we had Michael Jordan, and you have to credit his talent. But at the other end of the spectrum, if players nine, ten, eleven, and twelve are unhappy because Michael takes twenty-five shots a game, their negativity is going to undermine everything. It doesn't matter how good individual players are—they can't compete with a team that is awake and aware and trusts each other. People don't understand that.
“Most of the time, everybody's so concerned about not being disrespected. But you have to check that attitude at the door—that defensiveness, that protection of your own image and reputation. Everybody needs help in this game. Everybody's going to get dunked on. We're all susceptible to falling down and being exposed. But when we lose our fear of that, and look to each other, then vulnerability turns into strength, and we can take responsibility for our place in the larger context of the team and embrace a vision in which the group imperative takes precedence over personal glory." Remember that as a leader in your own arena.
Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man
William Henry Seward was the leading member of Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals," and he most certainly deserves wide recognition and appreciation a century and a half later. Seward, the odds-on favorite for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1860 improbably won by Lincoln, went on to serve as secretary of state to both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He was so important that he, along with Lincoln and Johnson, was targeted for assassination the night Lincoln was shot. He was seriously wounded but managed to survive. More than anyone else, Seward was responsible for Lincoln's election as president, for the peaceful reunification of the Confederate states after the war, for the acquisition of Alaska (scorned by many as "Seward's Icebox"), and for the eventual acquisition of Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, the Panama Canal, and Puerto Rico. Late in life, as a widower with a 20-something girlfriend whom he adopted as his daughter, he was one of the first persons to travel as a tourist around the world. Actor David Strathairn portrayed Seward in the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln. If the movie made you want to understand more, then this biography may be for you, though I caution that The New York Times Book Review was on the mark in deprecating it as "occasionally plodding." It is indeed slow in parts, but it is also a solid biography of a historic figure in historic times.
Socrates: A Man for Our Times
Short biographies are a saving grace for those of us who want to continue growing intellectually but face multiple, competing demands on our time. Paul Johnson rides to our rescue. A master of the genre, he writes gracefully and cogently. Each life he chooses to capture and chronicle—and there have been many; he has been laboring at it for more than sixty years now—emerges fully formed in just a couple of hundred pages. Even better, we need not fight our way through thickets of irrelevant minutiae that undisciplined biographers include for no apparent reason other than impressing their peers in the academy.
Though these brief biographies may be short, the author’s challenge is a tall one. After sorting the wheat from the chaff, so that he can concentrate on what really matters, he must also find a way to present it colorfully and memorably. As every writer knows (but as Mark Twain famously did not say), it’s easier and faster to write long than short. On finishing a good short biography, you feel as though you’re seated next to the biographer’s subject at a dinner party, and you are enthralled at every anecdote he shares.
Socrates must have presented a comical sight on the streets of Athens. He was physically malformed—his bulbous nose and protruding eyes drew ridicule, and in middle age he developed a noticeable paunch—but quick on his feet, a master of the gentle putdown. He often spoke with irony and jocularity. He was married multiple times and perhaps indulged in bigamy; if so, he certainly wasn’t atypical.
In Socrates: A Man for Our Times, the author places the great Athenian philosopher where he belongs: at the headwaters of Western thought. As any bright schoolchild can tell you, Socrates and his thinking would have been lost to history had it not been for one of his pupils, a lad by the name of Plato, who memorialized the great philosopher’s teachings in dozens of dialogues, all of which feature real conversations that Socrates actually led.
Socrates has lived on for two and a half millennia for good reason. By asking so many and such profoundly provocative questions, he inspired people to think more critically and rigorously. Today his very name is a synonym for questioning. “Socratic teaching” and “Socratic leadership”—and, more generally, the Socratic method—refer to a process of teaching or leading by means of asking good questions. Socrates was nothing if not endlessly and deeply curious. He roamed the neighborhoods and parks of Athens, and he engaged in frequent conversations with people of all classes, crafts, and callings. Although the Sophist businessmen in the Agora had little time or patience for his interrogatories, people who listened and contemplated his questions found they had a deeper and better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Indeed, as Socrates taught us, the value of a powerful question far exceeds the value of an incisive statement, because it is the beginning rather than the end of inquiry, from which knowledge and wisdom flow.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
With short memories and an inherent bias for the recent — psychologists call it the recency effect — people can be forgiven for thinking their situation is unprecedented. That’s certainly how it feels. Yet the United States has been down the road of political strife before and will be again long after Donald Trump is gone.
Acclaimed historian and journalist Jon Meacham takes us on a time capsule’s journey through the last two and a half centuries, from the nativism of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party to the overreach of Reconstruction, to the Jim Crow South, to the Suffrage Movement fifty years in the making, to McCarthyism and Kent State. We see racists, nativists, misogynists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, nationalists, isolationists, separatists, bigots, religious zealots, and control freaks of every type imaginable, all of whom sought to impose their small minds on a freedom-loving but culturally and economically insecure people. Every age has its arguments. its insults, its invective.
Meacham counsels hope, for this too shall pass. Taking his subtitle from Abraham's Lincoln's appeal to "the better angels of our nature" in his Second Inaugural Address, the author finds many redemptive figures who came along in the nick of time and whose nobility and decency saved the day. Meacham reminds us that they were inspirational figures who pointed to the future, not demagogues who pointed at "the other guy."
I was taken by Franklin Roosevelt's recognition of the true nature of the presidency: "The presidency is not merely an administrative office," he said during the 1932 campaign. "That's the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." Indeed.
Walter Isaacson’s fabulous biography of the late Steve Jobs is a terrific read, and I can recommend it enthusiastically to anyone with even a passing interest in business, leadership, or technology—or even, I am tempted to add, narcissistic personality disorders. Isaacson duly credits the Apple founder with a long list of triumphs, but his biography of Jobs is anything but servile or sycophantic. Rather it is bracingly candid, finely balanced, richly insightful, and powerfully revealing.
As insistently iconoclastic and innovative as Jobs was, he was also a temperamental tyrant, whose frequent tirades reduced colleagues and competitors alike to self-doubt, paralysis, and years or even decades of hostility that didn’t have to be. In reading Steve Jobs, you just want to grab the man by his black Issey Miyake turtleneck and shake some empathy into him. Humility? That was for other people, mere mortals. Jobs was all about arrogance and intimidation.
Yet far from decisive, Jobs would take forever to make simple decisions that take other people hours or even minutes. He was profane, and he was binary. Everything was either this or that, with no possibility for shades of gray. Designs for new products were always “shit” until their final, slight modification. Then they were perfect. Steve Jobs is jam-packed with insights on Steve Jobs. My binary advice: Buy it and read it now—with a yellow highlighter.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Perhaps the United States is too riven by partisan politics to allow a twenty-first century president to assemble and consult a genuine team of rivals as President Abraham Lincoln did. President Barack Obama certainly tried by selecting Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, as secretary of state in the manner of Lincoln selecting of William Henry Seward, his rival for the Republican nomination, as secretary of state. Obama also selected Republicans Robert M. Gates and Chuck Hagel as secretaries of defense.
But those are likely to be the rare exceptions, as President Donald Trump's choices have demonstrated. Goodwin's essential lesson is that vibrant collaboration and diversity of perspective are as valuable today as ever, in business as well as in government and politics. Incidentally, the final two chapters of this book were the basis for Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, though Spielberg added material not in these two chapters.
(See also my reviews of A. Lincoln: A Life by Ronald C. White Jr., above; of Lincoln, above, and of We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, below, both by David Herbert Donald; and of Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man, below, by Walter Stahr.)
I have a love-hate relationship with this book, and I am hesitant to recommend it to anyone but the hard-core history buff or the Teddy Roosevelt groupie. Theodore Roosevelt is one of my two or three favorite presidents. He has a place on my short list of best leaders in world history. I am in awe of his legacy, his character, his outdoors ethic, his authenticity, his trust-busting zeal against plutocrats, and his lust for adventure and derring-do. Given my love of biographies, you would think that would easily be enough for me to enjoy this book.
In part, I did. Some passages are fascinating. One of the most endearing is the colorful story of the creation of Teddy bears. But these passages seem like afterthoughts. They are short and cursory. It feels as if the author, Edmund Morris, finished a manuscript without them, and an editor urged him to add them.
Morris also seems to write for other academics like himself, rather than the general reader. I happen to have a large vocabulary, and even I was shaking my head at his repeated use of ten-dollar multisyllabic words that, by their sheer quantity, detract from his observations and insights. Moreover, the book inexplicably devotes far too much attention to foreign policy, which, while certainly important, seems out of place for a president whose reputation is largely one of environmental conservation and economic populism.
Go ahead and read this book, but do not make it your first or your only biography of Teddy Roosevelt. (See also my review below of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919 by Douglas Brinkley and my reviews above of Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida Donald, of Mornings of Horseback by David McCullough, and of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham, formerly the editor of Newsweek, has written a balanced and nuanced portrait of America’s foremost intellectual trumpeteer. He captures Thomas Jefferson’s political genius, his eloquent writing, his childlike acquisitiveness (always buying the coolest gadget, the latest bestseller, the best cabernet), his red-letter Christianity, and the profound paradox of his ownership of slaves and his long-running affair with one of them. At book’s end, Jefferson and his rival John Adams (see my review of that eponymously titled book by David McCullough, above) die just hours apart, fifty years to the day after they both risked life and limb by signing the Declaration of Independence.
What shall we make of the paradox? “With his brilliance and his accomplishment and his fame he is immortal,” Meacham concludes. “Yet because of his flaws and his failures he strikes us as mortal, too—a man of achievement who was nonetheless susceptible to the temptations and compromises that ensnare all of us. He was not all he could be. But no politician—no human being—ever is. We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been.”
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Jr.
This is one of those big, marvelous biographies that you don’t want to end. What an incredible life John D. Rockefeller led, and not only because of his wealth. Suffice to say that much of what you think you know about Rockefeller is wrong, and there is so much that you don’t know.
I was struck by the awful role model of his father, a bigamist and patent-medicine quack; by the early history of the Standard Oil Co. (disclosure: I worked for Amoco Corporation, one of the many progeny of Standard Oil, for a number of years); by JDR’s role in revolutionizing the teaching and practice of medicine; by his saintly personal life; by the role and impact of religion on his personality and behavior (he was tithing even as a teenager, long before he made his fortune); by the backstory on his founding of The University of Chicago (disclosure: both my daughter and I are alumni); and by his personal largesse (he gave away 99 percent of the money he made).
All in all, Titan is a splendid read. Highly recommended for any history buff, and especially to anyone with an interest in leadership.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
The author of Seabiscuit returns with another phenomenal, true story you won’t put down. On the New York Times best-seller list for months after its publication in 2010, Unbroken is the chronicle of Louis Zamperini, a 1936 Olympic miler and World War II Army airman whose B-24 crashed in the South Pacific in May 1943.
Lieutenant Zamperini and another American soldier survived, only to spend forty-seven days on a raft before landing on a Japanese-held island, where they were taken prisoner and then subjected to brutal treatment for more than two years. Ultimately, Zamperini finds his way to forgive the Japanese.
The incredible story of redemption takes on spiritual dimensions in Hillenbrand’s hands. She writes: “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.” Ethan and Joel Coen adapted the book to a screenplay. Alas, the movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, paled in comparison with the book.
We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends
David Herbert Donald
This book isn’t for everybody, but if you’re interested in the phenomenon of “lonely at the top” (or you’re just a serious history buff), you may enjoy the late David Herbert Donald’s portraits of Abraham Lincoln’s friendships, when he was a small-town lawyer in frontier Illinois and later when he was the sixteenth president of the United States, in We Are Lincoln Men. It focuses particularly on Lincoln’s roommate Joshua Speed, his law partner Billy Herndon, the Kentucky gentleman and U.S. Senator (from Illinois) Orville Browning, and the unlikeliest of all, Secretary of State William Seward, a rival (and the odds-on favorite) for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Looming large in the background is Lincoln’s tumultuous wife, Mary, who casts judgment on all her husband’s friends. I especially liked the observation of Milton S. Eisenhower (brother of President Dwight Eisenhower) in the Afterword to the effect that leaders need confidants to help them “think out loud.” That is so very true.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
Having grown up just twenty-three miles from Lambeau Field, I am a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan. In my youth Vince Lombardi was an icon. This book explains his compelling approach to leadership. You need not enjoy American football to like this book, but if you do, you will love it. Of particular note to any leader who points a finger of blame at his underperforming team rather than at his own leadership of said underperforming team: Lombardi took a 1-11 team in 1958 and, with the same players, won the National Football League championship three years later. Same players, different coach.
It wasn't just a fluke; the Packers won the National Football League championship five times in the 1960s, including the famous Ice Bowl game played in -13 degree weather and a howling wind, as well as the first two Super Bowls against the American Football League champions. There's a reason the Super Bowl trophy is named after him. Years later, the players credited Lombardi for helping them believe in themselves. (See also my recommendation for Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer above.)
I especially resonated to the discussion of love as a core value in Lombardi’s coaching. Maraniss shares a marvelous anecdote recalled by offensive lineman Bob Skoronski, who said that Lombardi once started a pep talk by asking the big, burly football players: "What is the meaning of love?” That caught everyone's attention. The man's man of a coach continued: “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. But you will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright, or isn’t glamorous. . . . Can you accept someone for his inabilities?” He went on to explain that blaming another player for a fumble or a missed block was unacceptable. On a team, he said, each player has to cover for each other player. We are, after all, a team. Wonderful stuff.
Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball
If you are at a loss to understand the powerful concepts of self-disclosure and authenticity at the core of leadership and stewardship, you can do no better than read R.A. Dickey’s marvelous memoir.
Dickey, a major-league baseball pitcher, spent years as a little-noticed minor-league pitcher before finally making the big time. He won baseball’s highest pitching honor, the Cy Young Award, when he was in his mid-30s. His memoir is a courageous, soulful look at what it takes to lead a life of character and integrity. Having been sexually assaulted twice as a youth, and having hidden it in shame, he didn't achieve success in baseball until he came to terms with his victimization. This book has powerful lessons for every modern leader.
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919
This is an excellent if at times laborious book on President Theodore Roosevelt's environmental leadership and legacy. Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University, is a superb historian and a competent writer, but he leans more on facts than insights and anecdotes. Personally, I gravitate to the anecdotal narrative. When he goes there, Brinkley's writing comes alive, and the reader remembers it for a long time afterward.
For example, Brinkley vividly recounts the few days that Roosevelt spent on horseback with the famed naturalist John Muir in what is now Yosemite National Park. Their conversation led to the permanent preservation of wilderness lands and eventually to the creation of national parks, an idea that has been replicated by nations around the world. The story is vintage TR: Accompanied only by a pair of Secret Service agents, and having ditched the press corps and wealthy groupies who wanted time with the president, the two men rode up to Glacier Point on the south rim overlooking Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls, and they camped out on the promontory.
A year after reading this book, I returned to Yosemite with my daughter and stood on the very spot where they camped. What a rush! Had I not read this book, I probably would still have visited Glacier Point but without the story on my mind for historical meaning and perspective.
Another example, closer to home: Roosevelt often traveled by railroad from New York to his South Dakota ranch. Brinkley includes just enough detail that I was able to ascertain that Roosevelt rode the very rail tracks abutting the Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, Illinois, north of Chicago, where I frequently hike. I'm enough of a dork that whenever I approach the tracks I give a nod to his ghost. If not compulsively readable, this book is nevertheless a gem.
Anyone who wants a fuller appreciation of Theodore Roosevelt—and especially anyone who cares about environmental stewardship or who just enjoys the great outdoors—will appreciate it. But be aware that it isn't a page turner, and know that reading it requires a commitment. (See also my reviews, above, of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster; of Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida Donald; and of Mornings of Horseback by David McCullough.)
The Wright Brothers
Late in his heralded career, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough turned his perceptive eye and prodigious talent to the Wright Brothers. The narrative that emerged is as captivating as the dream of flight has always been to mortal man.
McCullough does far more than recount the well-known story of the boys in a bike shop in Dayton and on the beach at Kitty Hawk. Rather, he reveals their inner drive, and he finds power in their intellectual curiosity, disciplined scientific inquiry, and persevering courage.
Money was never part of the equation. If it had been, Orville once remarked, they would have concentrated on something with higher odds of success, and no one would know their names today. He often quoted his father: "All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden to others." Or take this quote from Wilbur: "A man who works for the immediate present and its immediate rewards is nothing but a fool." They also appreciated their upbringing.
I personally was captivated by an anecdote involving a friend telling Orville that he and Wilbur stood as inspiring examples of how much two men with no special advantage in life could accomplish. "But it isn't true to say we had no special advantages," Orville replied. The "greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity." Indeed.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Accessible to readers of any or no religious faith, Zealot is a scholarly biography of one of the great leaders in world history. It takes the canonical gospels as a frame of reference but reaches for other records and documentation to construct a historical portrait of Jesus as both revolutionary and prophet.
The author, a widely respected scholar of comparative religions, posits that Jesus was as much a political as spiritual leader, whose primary intent was bringing an end to Roman domination of Judea and to corruption in the priesthood. Aslan argues that crucifixions were Rome's preferred means of executing political opponents.
I found his thesis to be fascinating, but it certainly isn't without its detractors. Among its critics are Darrell Gwaltney, dean of the School of Religion at Belmont University, who remarked: "Even people who were present in the life of Jesus couldn't make up their minds about who he was. . . . and they were eyewitnesses." In addition, Dale Martin of Yale University called the book entertaining and "a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus," but he faulted Aslan for presenting early Christianity as being simply divided into a Hellenistic, Pauline school and a Jewish school oriented to James, which he said repeats nineteenth century German scholarship that has long since been repudiated.
I have no idea who, if anyone, is right, but I am convinced that Jesus deserves recognition as one of history's truly great leaders.