(Adapted and reproduced by permission of Harvard Business Review, written by Warren Bennis.)
It was with “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” playing in my head that I read Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. And although it offers no magic formula, no quick cure, this book does provide a framework for thinking about leadership in clear, unemotional terms that is the necessary first step toward resolving the leadership crisis that faces us.
One of Gardner’s central ideas is that effective leaders—the Hitlers as well as the Roosevelts—tell or embody stories that speak to other people. By leaders, Gardner does not mean only CEOs or heads of state. In his view, leaders are all those “persons who, by word and/or personal example, markedly influence the behaviors, thoughts, and/or feelings of a significant number of their fellow human beings” (Gardner prefers the term audience to followers for those who are influenced). He describes a continuum of leadership that starts with indirect leadership, exerted through scholarly work or other symbolic communication, and progresses to direct leadership of the sort exercised by world leaders through speeches and other means.
Gardner also charts leadership in terms of its widening impact from influence exercised within relatively narrow domains, such as academic specialties, to influence exercised over larger communities, such as the influence Pope John XXIII exerted over the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, he describes a hierarchy of leadership based on creativity, with smaller-scale leaders such as educator Robert Maynard Hutchins at the bottom and visionaries such as Gandhi at the top.
The four factors Gardner lists as essential for effective leadership are a tie to a community or audience, a rhythm of life that includes isolation and immersion, a relationship between the stories leaders tell and the traits they embody, and arrival at power through the choice of the people rather than through brute force. Readers may or may not agree with the theoretical framework that Gardner modestly describes as not a model of leadership but merely the ingredients for a model. Whether they agree or not, however, they will find his stories of actual leaders full of insights into the myriad ways leadership expresses itself. Gardner is never so committed to his cognitive theory that he limits his observations to what fits neatly within his paradigm. With remarkable economy, he gives us more, not less; he provides not only the abstract and theoretical but also the concrete and historical.
Again and again, Gardner gives us opportunities to think deeply about leadership by defining terms in which to do so and by describing and ordering the many forms that leadership takes. If this schematic approach sometimes gets a bit tedious, we know that in a page or two we will come to another illuminating moment, another small take-home lesson. This is the primary return on our investment of time. A secondary pleasure of the book is that it has us jotting notes to ourselves to find out more about leaders whom we might otherwise have overlooked, such as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, who paused on his journey to the papacy to save Jews in the Balkans during World War II. Gardner’s creativity, recognized with a MacArthur “genius” award, transforms what could have been a tedious slog through weighty subject matter into an intellectual thrill ride.
In four decades of studying leaders, I have repeatedly found them to be what I call pragmatic dreamers—men and women whose ability to get things done is often grounded in a vision that includes altruism. Thus when Steve Jobs was recruiting John Sculley, then head of PepsiCo, for Apple Computer, Jobs knew to appeal not just to Sculley’s ambition but also to his desire to leave a legacy that would go beyond boosting profit margins. Jobs is said to have asked the man who was to become Apple’s next president and CEO how many more years of his life he wanted to spend making flavored water.
In the patterns of leadership that Gardner traces, several elements recur that have not been emphasized enough in earlier work on the subject. Travel, for instance, was even more important than formal education in shaping many of Gardner’s leaders, including Roncalli and Gandhi. Gardner points out that nonauthoritarian leaders are more likely than authoritarian leaders to have traveled extensively abroad. Many leaders went on almost mythic interior journeys invoking testing and rebirth. Gardner shows how Eleanor Roosevelt, who had to deal with both her husband’s polio and his love for another woman, responded by reinventing herself as an increasingly independent advocate for the causes that were most important to her, notably women’s rights and civil rights.
It is important, though, that we do not become Olympian in our view of leadership. Leadership is never exerted in a vacuum. It is always a transaction between the leader, his or her followers, and the goal or dream. A resonance exists between leaders and followers that makes them allies in support of a common cause. The leader’s role in this process has been much analyzed. My studies show, for instance, that leaders are highly focused, that they are able to inspire trust, and that they are purveyors of hope. But followers are more essential to leadership than any of those individual attributes. As Garry Wills writes in Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, “The leader most needs followers. When those are lacking, the best ideas, the strongest will, the most wonderful smile have no effect.”
Leaders are capable of deep listening: Gandhi demonstrated that when he traveled throughout India learning the heart of his people. But what distinguishes leaders from, say, psychotherapists or counselors is that they find a voice that allows them to articulate the common dream. Uncommon eloquence marks virtually every one of Gardner’s leaders, but I have yet to see public speaking listed on a resume. We seem to regard the ability to galvanize an audience as something almost tawdry, even dangerous. Yet it was the eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr., grounded in the cadences of thousands of his father’s sermons, that gave him the voice of a national, even international leader. That fact should be kept in mind by anyone trying to draw up a curriculum for future leaders.
Effective leaders put words to the formless longings and deeply felt needs of others. They create communities out of words. In Leading Minds, Gardner shows that he himself is just such a leader, able to articulate and clarify what many of us have been thinking on the subject for a long time.