When I was in grade school, our school library had a series of books that told the stories of famous people—everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison and beyond. Each provided information about the subjects’ formative years, their adult lives, and their impact on other people and society. Although published in the 1950s, the series was not limited to white American men, but also featured women, Native Americans, and African-Americans. For the most part these were morality tales that promised if you worked hard and helped others, you would be successful in life. The perspective might have been rather narrow, but such reading did introduce me to the joy of learning about leaders through reading.
Reading biography and autobiography provides significant insight about those who have gone before us--the famous, the infamous, and the obscure. Such reading gives a ground-level perspective on great national and international movements and often helps us to gain a better understanding of why certain actions were taken and others avoided. We are also given the opportunity to reflect on the consequences of the subject’s action or inaction.
Of course, one could argue that the autobiography or memoir is a biased narrative. We have come to accept that the politician who has left office or the person who has been a leader in business, industry, or other public position may use their book to “settle accounts” or provide their “spin” on events. Although I have not read his book, I would imagine that Dick Cheney’s new book, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir” falls into the category. Those aspiring to office also usually write (or get help writing) their “back story” in order to introduce themselves to the public—Barack Obama, Sara Palin, and Rick Perry come to mind.
Even so, the personal memoir gives us a sense of the person as he or she wants us to perceive him or her—formative experiences, defining moments of life, and values embraced. This is their life narrative and explains to us how they perceive leadership and the way they exercise it.
Biography, the story of a person’s life written by someone else, is by no means objective or impartial, but it very often is more balanced. Most reputable biographers try to get a 360 degree view of their subject by getting input from others. Interviews and research provide the writer with the viewpoints of other observers or participants and often places the person’s life in the political, international, cultural, or economic context of the time in which they lived. I realize that some biographies are “authorized” by the subject, so we must take that into consideration as we attempt to learn more about the person and their leadership style and choices.
Those books who promise to give us “leadership lessons” from the life of a particular individual should be read with caution. Most of the time, the author begins with his or her own point of view on leadership and imposes it on the life story of the subject. If some incident in the subject’s life does not fit the author’s pattern, it is rejected. Such books tend to take a narrow rather than a broad view of a person’s life.
As we read about the lives of the great and small, we not only learn from their experiences, but we are also challenged to reflect on our own lives. How do we make choices? Who and what do we value? What is the legacy we leave to others? All are good leadership questions.