Summer Reading on Leadership

All honors students who have taken Honors First Year Experience or Introduction to Honors know that effective leaders help a group reach common goals. I’ll bet that whether you are working this summer in a chemistry lab, shadowing a doctor, or earning money in your summer job at the local golf course, you have seen examples of good and poor leadership and have learned from the experience.

How a leader helps a group reach its goals is often misunderstood in American popular culture. Hollywood films and television shows frequently depict effective leadership as strong, powerful, and dominating. Those characteristics are appropriate for a narrative arc that demands tension and a series of conflicts followed by quick resolution. These are the building blocks of popular stories for us, and they fit the time constraints required in a blockbuster film or an award-winning television show.

Unfortunately, as British political scientist Archie Brown recently argued in his book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Basic Books, 2014), those same leadership characteristics are often seen as desirable in everyday life, particularly in government. Our media feeds off of the same narrative arc as Hollywood; journalists also want to tell a succinct story that has heroes and villains, crises and victories, winners and losers.

Brown argues that these domineering, “strong” leadership characteristics often aren’t the most effective. In a sweeping analysis of modern leadership, mostly in Europe and the United States but with telling examples from South Africa, Mexico, China, and the Arab world, Brown shows that the world’s most effective modern leaders were more likely the ones who sought out others’ opinions and used commonly agreed upon and transparent processes to make decisions. These are usually leadership characteristics often described as “weak” by the media.

To counter this vision of leadership, Brown argues that the most effective leaders consult with others – even those with whom they disagree. They candidly accept criticism and might be willing to change their minds if persuaded by sound arguments. They have a firm grasp of their morals and principles, but they also are open to compromise and use this skill to seek common ground that advances a vision for the future. Once decisions were made, these leaders were able to use their charisma and courage and vision to persuade others to support them. Importantly, these leaders had the foresight to let others take the lead and receive public praise for accomplishments.

Which historic figures are most praised by Brown? He thinks students of American leadership should look toward Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. Although all of these presidents had their failings (think Vietnam and President Johnson), Brown cites examples of their ability to redefine the terms of popular discussion or perhaps even to transform domestic or international systems. They were leaders who believed in the power of collective consultation and the vetting of contrary perspectives.

Although the book is focused on high politics, it has lessons for everyday forms of leadership on campus and in businesses or other organizations. For example, Brown notes that the increasing speed of communications (texts, emails, etc…) encourages leaders to try to solve problems on their own and therefore limits consultation and debate through open processes where dissenting voices might offer other perspectives on an issue. His study offers real-life lessons related to principles studied by honors students at Minnesota State Mankato – especially the principle that everyone can contribute to a group’s goals in their own way, depending on their previous experiences and skills. Fostering a collective form of leadership works just as well in the office, lab, and maybe even the golf course as it does in the highest echelons of government.

Dr. Chris Corley

Honors Program Director

Associate Professor of History

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