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Published: November 22, 2011
 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65

 
 

Best Business Books 2011: Leadership

At the same time, however, consider the context in which he lived. For more than a quarter century, Washington played a leading role in each of several different dramas: in the French and Indian War, where he honed his military prowess while acquiring the political and diplomatic skills for which he later became renowned; during the First and Second Continental Congresses, where he nurtured personal and political alignments with members of the colonial elite; during the Revolutionary War, where, as commander in chief of the Continental army, he sealed his fame forevermore; during the Constitutional Convention, over which he famously presided with dignity and restraint; and, finally, as first president of the United States, a position to which he was unanimously elected by the just-established Electoral College.

Lust for Life

The third leadership lesson is that sometimes — not often, but sometimes — a single individual is unstoppable, a force of nature. Even past his prime, Theodore Roosevelt was such a man, a man of such brilliance and vitality, such stunning contradiction, such fierceness in his love of life, that everyone else seemed to shrink in comparison, becoming pygmies in contrast to this giant of a figure. Since Colonel Roosevelt constitutes the final chapter in Theodore Roosevelt’s life, it is more about his ostensible failures than his many successes. The biggest of these failures was his unsuccessful run for president on the ticket of the Progressive or Bull Moose Party, which he had founded for various reasons, not least to reclaim the pinnacle of power. As a result of his combativeness, he also became alienated from leading figures of the day, particularly political opponents, including his two immediate successors as president, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

But it’s hard to read this book and dwell on what TR did not accomplish, when he accomplished so much. His lust for life was so great that only death could quell it — first the death, in World War I, of the youngest and brightest of his well-loved children, son Quentin, and then his own, when he was just 60. What stands out most about Roosevelt is his intellectual voraciousness. Most of us know about his hunger for adventure, which took him, famously, to distant continents (Africa and South America) where he, equally famously, and, given his prescient preoccupation with conservation, paradoxically, slaughtered animals in large numbers. What we are less likely to know is that Theodore Roosevelt authored some 40 books, and cultivated an early expertise on a range of subjects, many, but by no means all, related to the natural world. A small example: Morris describes the former president seeking unaccustomed silence and solace at his home on Long Island, and witnessing 42 species of birds — thrashers and herons, bobolinks and catbirds, meadowlarks and red-tailed hawks. “All of them,” Morris writes, “were listed in the catalogue, Notes on Some of the Birds of Oyster Bay, Long Island. He had no need to consult that authoritative work, having written and published it himself, at age twenty.”

Tradition as a Starting Point

The fourth and final lesson is that the ruling class is anything other than dead and gone. In 1921, German sociologist Max Weber published a seminal analysis of three types of leaders, one of which was the traditional leader. Traditional leaders are assumed by their followers to have the right to lead because they are legitimate heirs to legitimate traditions, as, for example, when the prince inherits the throne from his father. It is impossible to read Decision Points, in some ways a modest book by in some ways a modest man, and not conclude that in a million years George W. Bush would never have been elected president had he not been perceived on some level as a legitimate heir to a legitimate tradition.

 
 
 
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