May 27, 2018

Reading…and Leading

The only thing new under the sun is the
history you don’t know.
Harry Truman

I have serendipitously found myself in the midst of a three-volume bio of Joseph Stalin by starting with Volume Two without realizing it was part of a trilogy. The author is Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and the Hoover Institution at Stanford and his command of historical detail is amazing. I will be reading the other two volumes as soon as I can get my hands on them.

The reason I mention this here is that I was astounded to read within it that Joseph Stalin had a personal library of 20,000 books! It is reported by Kotkin that most of the dictator’s volumes were heavily underlined with writing in the margins…the sign of a careful and thoughtful reader.

This shocked me. Stalin is about the last person I would have thought of as a reader.

And yet, on the other hand, I should not be that surprised. Joseph Stalin rose from complete obscurity – with no obvious assets but his own wits – to become dictator of the largest landmass on earth. Whatever his sins (and they were many), he couldn’t have been a dummy.

I find that most of the leaders I know are active readers, always staying up with the newest publications and eager to chat about the discoveries uncovered in their reading.

Many of our best American Presidents have also been voracious readers. JFK and Harry Truman come quickly to mind. Teddy Roosevelt too…and TR also wrote books – 45 by my count.

Here’s the thing I find compelling about reading: it accelerates your own learning curve dramatically. Depending on your taste, it can open whole new worlds to you. It also will make you a better stylist and improve your vocabulary almost by osmosis.

I can always tell when one of my undergraduate students is a regular reader. They seem to immediately pick up on allusions that my other students completely miss and speak with greater confidence and command of the language.

When it comes to the specific benefits of reading for would-be leaders, I’d like to touch here upon just a few – with a special focus on the reading of history and biography:

1. Leaders can learn how other leaders tackled problems and organized the solutions. Often, they can also see the unintended consequences that can flow from even the best of intentions and the smartest minds. Did the success with which the Kennedy Administration dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis carry the seeds of the misguided strategy of escalation a few years later in Vietnam? Did they become convinced that one country could send “signals” to another that would be read the way the senders intended…only to be confused and frustrated when Ho Chi Minh failed to respond? Readers know that these things happen all the time and are one of the dangers embedded in what the wider world describes as “success.”

2. Learn can learn about how other leaders dealt with people issues – which can often be the most intractable of all. Lincoln presided over a cabinet composed largely of men who he’d defeated for the Republican Nomination in 1860 and who, to a man, considered themselves his intellectual and experiential superiors. Yet, somehow he was able to convert them into strong supporters over time. How did he do that? Read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals and find out.

3. Leaders can also learn how other leaders thought…the basic intellectual apparatus of their mind. One of the things about John F. Kennedy I noted in this regard was his basically detached view of the world. According to White House Counsel and later Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, JFK had the ability to separate his person from the Presidency as if he were watching someone else handle the job. This helped him stay objective, manage his emotions, and avoid personalizing issues. This would prove to be quite a contrast to his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

4. Leaders can learn about other – less prominent – characteristics than can provoke deeper thought, respect and – sometimes – even awe. A story that has stayed with me since I first read it was the way Abraham Lincoln dealt with insubordination from the cautiously unsuccessful General, George McClellan (who would later run against him in the 1864 election). Walking back to the White House with Secretary of War Stanton – after being rudely snubbed by the General at his residence – Stanton fumed and sputtered. To this Lincoln commented: “I’d hold McClellan’s horse if he’d just get us a victory.” Humility like Lincoln’s is a rare thing in most people – particularly in Presidents.

5. Reading – especially the right stuff – can help leaders be more eloquent and polished in both their public remarks and in their written observations. It has been observed that Winston Churchill shaped his own speaking style on the prose of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Reading also can provide us with some wonderful quotations for later use at appropriate moments. I’ll end with a few from Napoleon Bonaparte, with his deeply ingrained cynicism dripping from each line:

What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

“A leader is a dealer in hope.”