Biography is Destiny

In my recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I argue that to be considered an earnest endeavor, leadership learning must encompass 1) education 2) training; and 3) development. Which raises the question of what should each of these three consist of?

In pondering the stuff of a good leadership education, I am struck by how biography has come to seem quaint.  For eons leaders were told to learn to lead by studying the lives of great leaders – even if they were flawed. The lives of great men – to wit, Plutarch’s Lives – were presumed pedagogical tools, instructing by illustrating how not to be ordinary but to be extraordinary, especially by getting others, in some cases by whatever means necessary, to follow your lead.

Now, though, such instruction seems dated, old-fashioned. While there are some exceptions – the life of Ernest Shackleton continues to be an exemplar – generally biographies are missing from leadership curricula. Our loss, for they remain a wonderful way of modeling behavior to be emulated or, for that matter, to be scorned. A great biography brings great gratification. A great biography is great art. And a great biography can be a great pedagogical implement.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Machiavelli. Here is what he wrote in his classic manual on how to lead, The Prince:

As regards the exercise of the mind, the prince should … study the actions of eminent men, observe how they bore themselves in war, and examine the causes of their victories and defeats, so that he may imitate the former and avoid the latter. But above all he should follow the example of whatever distinguished man he may have chosen for his model, assuming that someone has been specially praised and held up to him as glorious. Whose actions and exploits he should ever bear in mind….

A wise prince should never be idle in times of peace but should industriously lay up stores of which to avail himself in times of adversity; so that, when Fortune abandons him, he may be prepared to resist her blows.   


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