The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers
May 26, 2016
Jocelyn Davis uses great literature to impart invaluable lessons on leadership.
The Greats On Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers by Jocelyn Davis, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 288 pages, $29.95, Hardcover, May 2016, ISBN 9781857886399
In last week’s review, we looked at a book that showed us how learning to keenly observe great works of art can help us better assess, analyze, and articulate information, and adapt to the world around us. This week, we have a book that teaches us to become better leaders by reading the classics.
We know how painful and dull leadership training can be. Most companies of any decent size have leadership development programs that seek to educate their future leaders in the science of motivation and management. Jocelyn Davis flips the standard approach on its head, because:
As the first-century Greek historian and philosopher put it, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Rather than a science, Davis teaches leadership as a liberal art. And to do that, she turns to great books.
She begins with The Book of Exodus. She invokes Moses to teach us about the myth the charisma. If it is important at all to leadership, she tells us, it is “the icing on the cake” and not the cake itself—and it is essentially unnecessary. Moses is “a man with a speech impediment, shaky self-esteem, and a tendency to lean on his relatives.” Indeed, it is his brother Aaron that, through the first nine plagues, “does the talking and wields the staff that turns the Nile to blood and summons forth the frogs and gnats, while Moses stays in the background.” And even when he steps out as the clear leader to bring his people out of Egypt, he does something many leaders do—takes on too much and fails to delegate. His father-in-law Jethro, after watching Moses sit for a full day in judgment, settling the disputes of his followers, tells him that the situation is untenable, that he must begin to delegate some of that responsibility and judgment.
Moses takes Jethro’s advice and starts to hire and delegate. He chooses “men of caliber” and created an organizational structure that would be familiar to any modern-day employee, with “chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens” (18:25), each authorized to handle decisions of a certain magnitude. Steeped as we are in the myth of the heroic leader, we may find the whole scene strangely corporate: Moses the Seer must build an organization.
The first part of the books is about getting to “The Heart of Leadership.” After taking charisma off its leadership pedestal, Davis defines “three behaviors that characterize a real leader”: leaders go first, they “step forward when other stay back”; leaders create hope, they “help us see the light at the end of the tunnel, or throw us a lifebelt when we’re sinking under the waves”; leaders focus on people rather than policies, systems, and processes. And discusses eight traps leaders get caught in.
She breaks the rest of the book up into four larger parts—on Politics, Battles, Minds, and Judgments—before wrapping it up with a look at The Future of Leadership.
To give you an idea of the breadth of the entire book, we can look just at Part II: Politics. It begins with Machiavelli, ends with Churchill, and includes Plato, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. Davis uses Machiavelli to discuss the power of public sentiment and importance of individual persuasion, and to remind us to not ignore people’s feelings when trying to accomplish a goal, because “Emotion can be a tidal wave that sweeps through a technocrat’s tidy world of process and procedure and knocks it all flat in an instant.” That is to say, you can have a laudable goal and a perfect plan, but if it’s fraught with political implications that you don’t understand or can’t manage along the way, it is never going to succeed.
Then it’s on to Plato’s Republic to impart lessons in fairness and justice, how to view it as a whole and, again, enact it on an individual level. She uses the story of Antigone to discuss the true nature of power, which she describes aptly as “the ability to accomplish work,” instilling the lesson that true power does not reside in one’s position or the ability to punish people, but in the ability to move people and get things done. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is employed to ruminate on authority, and how it is distinct from power. And, finally, Churchill is brought in to define character, with his writings on his contemporary T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) showing how to exhibit it graciously.
And those are just the main authors that hold the chapters in Part II together! She’s constantly digressing into other novels, contemporary business stories and business thinkers, and even pop culture to illustrate how the core lessons might be applied in different situations and in today’s world. In the section on Julius Caeser, she brings in lessons from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. At the beginning of the book, to tell us something about where leadership and leaders come from, she pulls a principle from the animated film Ratatouille that “Not everyone can be a great chef. But, a great chef can come from anywhere.” She quotes Taylor Swift, references Downton Abbey. She talks about her Undle Teddy, and what his prowess in board games and lawn games can teach you about strategy, which ties into lessons from Blue Ocean Strategy. You’ll find David Brooks in the section on Plutarch and developing character, and Jim Collins’s story of Kimberly Clark’s Darwin Smith from Good to Great to illustrate what character in business looks like. She uses lessons from Viktor Frankl to teach us how to construct a motivating climate for people to work in. She digresses from Carl Jung’s psychological types into Meyers-Briggs and a look at the characters from Harry Potter, before circling back to the source (as she does in every chapter) to expound upon the deeper insights to be found in Jung’s work. Then she’s on to what Roald Dahl and Martin Heidegger can teach us about blind spots and what the characters in Jane Austen’s Emma can teach us about developing talent, and it all, somehow, makes perfect sense.
It’s also eminently practical. There are assessment tools, planning tools, and team tools mixed in throughout the book, charts and figures abound, and there’s even an appendix on how to launch a study group around the book. It is a great balance of introspection, inspiration, and impetus toward execution. It is intellectual and aspirational, yet immediately actionable. She’ll be discussing the greatness of Pericles’ and Abraham Lincoln’s oration in one paragraph, and laying out in detail four communication mistakes to avoid in the next.
She uses the humanities in an attempt to make business and leadership more human-centered. As she writes:
The working world is hard. While we don’t usually ask people to lay down their lives in the course of duty, we do ask them to slog through tedious tasks, bear harsh disappointment with a smile, and stretch to reach ever-tougher goals. The best leaders know that a paycheck alone does not inspire anyone to slog and bear and stretch—not to the extent required. What does inspire is an image in your mind of something lasting, worthwhile, and special of which you are a part. Something, Lincoln says, that’s worth a “full measure of devotion”; something, says Pericles, “to feed you eyes upon” from day to day.
And that is what this book offers in spades—something to feed your eyes upon, a rebalancing of perspective, a reminder that it’s more practical to think profoundly than pettily. Rather than accept the “real world,” she sets out in search of a better world through literature, and encourages leaders to make that better world a reality.