Washington: A Life
(Penguin Press, 2010)
(Random House, 2010)
George W. Bush
(Crown Publishers, 2010)
Once upon a time, long, long ago but not so far away, leadership was learned by learning about leaders. More precisely, we learned to lead by reading about great men (nearly always they were men) and their exploits. As Plutarch’s Lives was the first to attest, the assumption was instruction — life history as a template for what leaders ought and ought not do.
The practice persisted for hundreds, even thousands of years; autobiography and, especially, biography were used as pedagogy. But some 30 or 40 years ago, the age-old tradition nearly came to a grinding halt. Since the burgeoning of the leadership industry with its now countless centers, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experiences, teachers, trainers, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants, and coaches, which all claim to teach people how to lead, biography as pedagogy has gone out of fashion. Replaced now by readings on leadership development, training, and education, the life histories of great leaders are decidedly old hat.
The present essay is unapologetically old-fashioned. It’s about the best new books on leadership all right, but it omits from the discourse books explicitly about leadership, in favor of books implicitly about leadership: two biographies and a memoir. Furthermore, although this essay is intended for an audience composed primarily of private-sector leaders, it considers public-sector leaders — three American presidents who left legacies that, whether proud or problematic, endure. In other words, the books under discussion mark a return to leadership learning as a liberal art, a form of instruction as multifaceted and richly textured as it is deeply human.
Collectively, the books follow two trajectories. The first is chronological. The subject of Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is the first president of the United States. The subject of Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt is Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president, at about the midpoint in American history thus far. And in Decision Points, George W. Bush, the most recent ex-president of the United States, makes himself the book’s subject. The second trajectory is life span. Although Chernow’s book is, as its title implies, about George Washington’s entire life, the biographer is smitten with the start of the story, with Washington before he became president. Bush’s focus is on his time in the White House, on what he perceives to be the key crucibles of his performance as president. Finally, Morris’s book, the third in his magisterial three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, is not only about the illustrious post-presidency of “the Colonel” (as he preferred to be addressed in those years), but also, inevitably, about his decline.
Two of these authors are among the most distinguished of living American biographers: Chernow won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2011, for Washington; Morris won it in 1980, for the first volume of the trilogy, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Chernow’s is a doorstop of a book, but, again, he tells the tale in full, from Washington’s birth to his death, and transforms him in the process from bland and boring icon into flesh and blood — a complex, commanding, and charismatic man who willed himself a hero. Morris’s book is almost as thick, but less compelling, not because it is less well written or researched than Chernow’s, but because in focusing on Roosevelt’s post-presidency we are, by definition, deprived of the leader at the height of his powers. Still, the Colonel had one helluva post-presidency, and the book’s value lies in its examination of how a great man winds down, or does not.