The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)
Heroes: Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen. A History of Hero Worship
Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
Sharon Daloz Parks,
Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World
(Harvard Business School Press, 2005)
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones,
Why Should Anyone Be Led by YOU? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader
(Harvard Business School Press, 2006)
Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities
(Harvard Business School Press, 2006)
Warren G. Bennis and Robert Townsend,
Reinventing Leadership: Strategies to Empower the Organization
(Collins Business Essentials, 2005)
Nearly every author alive who has written a significant book on leadership gathered recently at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to celebrate the patriarch of their field, the redoubtable 81-year-old Warren Bennis. The emcee of the event estimated that the total number of books sold by those in the room was, even after deducting remainders, some 30 million. As might be expected from such celebrities, when each rose to speak he said more about himself than about the honoree. More surprisingly, no one said much about the subjects traditionally found in leadership books: the styles, traits, and practices of the masters of the art. Instead, the gurus’ comments touched variously on history, politics, philosophy, poetry, economics, technology, psychology, science, ethics, education, and culture. As they spoke, it became clear that each of the authors, in his or her own way, was seeking to understand the broader social context in which leadership occurs, and to clarify the complex, myriad, and unquantifiable ways in which leaders of modern institutions affect the lives of citizens, consumers, and workers. The sum of their comments amounted to a revelation: Without anyone’s having noticed, the field of leadership apparently had become the home base for business generalists and, in particular, the last bastion in academia of cross-disciplinary thought and teaching.
The Present Instrument
In hindsight, that shift away from the narrow “how to” and toward the broader “why” of leadership has been reflected in the books reviewed in strategy+business in recent years: For the most part, the best books selected in the field of leadership haven’t been “leadership books” at all. The titles atop this year’s list confirm the trend. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, is a concise and insightful journalistic account of the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initial term in office. Without listing FDR’s 10 leadership secrets, Mr. Alter provides invaluable lessons for executives seeking to change their organizations (aren’t they all?). Readers who make a little effort at translation from the world of politics to the world of business will find that the book shows how, by relying more on persuasion than on power, a determined leader can bring about profound change in a short period of time.
Mr. Alter reminds us how close America came in 1933 to succumbing to the totalitarianism that was then sweeping the world. With unemployment at 25 percent, with business investment all but nonexistent, and with many of the nation’s banks defaulting, such influential figures as William Randolph Hearst and Walter Lippmann were calling for FDR to assume “dictatorial powers” to quell the simmering political unrest that promised to boil over into rebellion. Roosevelt ignored the pleas to centralize power and, instead, used his impressive leadership skills to prod, cajole, connive, and charm Congress into quickly passing the most far-reaching array of social legislation in the nation’s history, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Recovery Administration (NRA), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and forerunners of the FDIC and SEC. Under his leadership, America was treated to an alphabet soup of programs and agencies designed to offer fast relief to its most distressed citizens and a sense of long-term security to the rest of the populace.