Monday, February 27, 2017

5 Leadership Lessons I Learnt from Reading Biographies

A couple of years ago I rediscovered biographies. I had always read the occasional biography but perhaps they mean more to me now that I am older. I read and re-read the biographies of Gandhi, Einstein, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin, Dick Feynman , and many more. They’ve been illuminating and enriching. And as I thought about what I learnt I was struck by some commonalities that lay across all these individuals who left a mark in the world. So I listed out the various things I learnt and came up with my top 5 that I produce below. These five do not purport to be a scientific list at all –just my personal observations of things that seemed to help all these individuals achieve great things in life.

a. Over-Arching Vision. This is perhaps the most obvious of all the commonalities. Yet it was such a strong theme that I can’t avoid listing it. The Individuals I read about all had strong visions that pushed them to strive for and excel every minute of their time. Whether Steve Job’s obsession to change the world though technology, Gandhi’s vision to free India, or Jefferson’s vision to guard the fledgling American republic against monarchial tendencies, these individuals had a vision that drove them. This vision helped them make key choices and pick the battles they wanted to fight. And interestingly most of them pursued the vision with relatively little self-interest.

b. Timing and Flexibility. While vision was important, the people I read about did not cling to it rigidly. They listened to others, knew when to retreat from a chosen path, and were willing to wait for the right time to make a push. This was an amazingly consistent theme. Some of the best examples I saw were Lincoln’s moves towards emancipation. The emancipation proclamation was written early, but on the advice of William Seward, Lincoln held back on issuing the proclamation till the Union Forces had had a clear victory over the Confederates – thus allowing the proclamation to appear as a principled objective as opposed to the desperate measure of a Union that had had a series of military reverses. And while believing in the inherent immorality of slavery Lincoln was willing to accept several compromises (including allowing for continuation of slavery in states where it already existed). These compromises allowed for incremental steps towards the common goal but ensured that there was strong support among his key supporters for this mission. Of course, this was also not always true and my favorite example is that of Dick Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Feynman was asked to give an important talk at a government agency in New York. As one who hated bureaucracy, he agreed on condition that he sign no more than 12 times on government documents or paperwork. He gave the lectures and they managed to keep him down to 12 lectures except for the check he was to receive as an honorarium. Feynman refused to accept the check as it would have meant a 13th signature and never got paid.

c. The Handling of Adversity: I was quite astonished by how much adversity was encountered and overcome by these individuals. Einstein applied for hundreds of academic jobs and received his first university job as a lecturer at the University of Bern in 1908 a full three years AFTER his miracle year (1905) when he published four revolutionary papers including the one on the photo electric effect that would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Isaacson’s biography of Einstein documents his disappointment during this period. What was common to all these individuals was that they all faced some very serious tests of adversity in their lives. But also that they faced these tests with pluck and grace, and used these times as an opportunity to do something else. While Jobs was extremely disappointed by his ouster from Apple in 1985, he used the time to found NEXT and co-establish Pixar.

d. They read a lot. And Widely. Virtually all the leaders whose biographies I read about were avid readers. And they read about subjects that one would not normally associate with them. At the time of his death, Ben Franklin’s library was said to be about 4000 books on topics that included fishing, philosophy, history, and science. Jefferson’s Library after his retirement from the Presidency of the United States in 1809 was close to 7000 books on topics as wide ranging as Geography, farming, the Greek classics, and Ancient History. Interestingly, after the British burned down the Library of Congress in the War of 1812, the Congress purchased Jefferson’s entire collection of about 6500 books to restart the new Library of Congress. Martin Luther King was inspired by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and other books including Gandhi's biography. Gandhi himself read widely – from Aesop’s fables, to history, to treatises on Christianity, Islam and other religions. And in virtually all biographies I read, there would be descriptions of how this wide and deep reading led these leaders to generate creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems and helped them refine and develop their worldviews.

e) Relationships. In the biographies that I read, I was also struck by the fact that all the leaders had a small group of very close friends with whom they were brutally honest. Lincoln chatted with William Seward virtually every night. Thomas Jefferson confided in James Madison and Munro, and later in life became a candid and honest communicator with his arch rival John Adams. What was most interesting, however, was that these leaders also had a very large circle of friends who while not as close as the inner coterie were a fairly big part of their social evenings. And these leaders spent considerable time cultivating these large number of friends, using much of the time spent with them to discuss and debate issues of relevance. For instance, even as a young man of 21, Ben Franklin started an organization called Junto in Philadelphia whose main objective was to discuss the issues of the day (Some variants of this exist till today). Regardless, virtually all the people I read about had a combination of the very close, tight knit inner set of friends, coupled with a larger network of friends.
The biographies that I read were varied. The individuals were mostly good but they all had weaknesses. And they were all human. But across centuries, and across professions, they all had these similarities. One characteristic, common to most (but not all) was their understanding of the complexities of the world. They knew there were no perfectly right answers and this made them humble. They weighed the issues and often took decisions without dogma. I end with this excerpt from Franklin’s speech in which he urged for the ratification of the American constitution…I simply love it and it has so many lessons for today’s world:

'I confess that I do not entirely approve this constitution...but sir, I am not sure that I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions...which I once thought were right....the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others... [The challenge is that] most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that whenever others differ from them, it is so far error.


  1. I enjoyed reading this blog and learnt a great deal!

    1. Thank you. I am so glad that you found it enjoyable and useful.