Bush’s book is different. First, it is a political memoir, with all the subjectivity that this implies, not an objective biography. Second, it was written (with assistance) by an amateur who is famous for not being particularly literate. Finally, it is by and about a man who well into adulthood took more pride in being a good ol’ boy than he did in being anything else. So, it is no surprise that Decision Points is prosaic in its construction, plain in its prose, and notably lacking in self-reflection. But whatever its defects as a work of literature and critical analysis, Bush’s book does give voice to the man we know: the ordinary Joe, the uber-Texan who, for reasons even he cannot artfully articulate, ended up spending eight years in Washington — as president of the United States.
History and Context
Assuming life stories are valuable sources of instruction, what leadership lessons do these three books provide?
First, history matters. All leaders ought to have some sense of what transpired in the past, of context (both immediate and distal), of who their followers are, and of how the leaders who preceded them played their parts. In reading these three books, I was struck by how Washington and Roosevelt profited from their liberal learning (much of it undertaken of their own volition), and by how Bush was diminished by his relative lack of it, by his lack of information and ideas and, worse, by his lifelong lack of curiosity about people and places other than those with whom and with which he was already familiar.
Second, context matters. In fact, my own model of leadership is in the shape of a triangle with three equal sides: leader, followers, and context. Life stories of leaders are not merely life stories. They are, equally, stories about the times within which leaders lived. It does not belittle Washington to say his greatness was as much a product of his context as it was of anything else. Notwithstanding Chernow’s thoroughly chronicled description of Washington as a man of great derring-do, who by dint of self-construction ascended beyond his own earliest imaginings, and who among his other gifts was an extraordinary physical specimen, this president also had the great good fortune of being born at the right time.
To consider Washington in context is to be reminded of that old chestnut: Great leadership is the result of great fit — between the person and the moment. Although Chernow’s book has justly been praised for infusing its subject with a measure of passion, it is impossible to be indifferent to the multiple upheavals that constituted his subject’s situation. This is not, in other words, a story of only a single struggle — by the Americans against the British — but of several struggles that began in the early 1750s and ended only in the late 1780s. What’s more, because each of these conflicts had military as well as political components, it mattered a great deal that Washington was as brilliantly accomplished a military leader as he was a political one. In fact, his political leadership depended absolutely on the glory he achieved in the military.
Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton was chosen as an s+b best business book in this category in 2004, does not shy from what leadership theorists call the trait approach: Leaders become leaders because they possess in relative abundance certain traits, or characteristics, that propel them to the fore. George Washington had drive, courage, energy, integrity, and a high level of contextual intelligence. Chernow writes that Washington had, in comparison with his peers, “superior presence, infinitely better judgment, more political cunning, and unmatched gravitas.... He had the perfect temperament for leadership.”