From the Front: Elizabeth Samet’s Leadership — Essential Writing By Our Greatest Thinkers

Let’s say for a moment, that you wanted to become a better leader of people, whether at home, the workplace, or in wider society. How would you go about such a goal? You might attend a training course, where you could have your personal style revealed. You could listen to a motivational speaker, on stage or on screen. You might read the latest management guru, providing new ways to bring together a team. You might even, given your obvious interest in books, read the biography of a great leader, an Elizabeth or a Roosavelt, and learn from their lives. Would you though, seek out a copy of Jean de la Fontaine’s 1668 poem The Oak and the Reed?

Leadership is a collection of classic texts, including The Oak and the Reed, compiled and edited by Elizabeth Samet, an English Professor and prize winning author. This in itself is not remarkable, but Samet is. She is Professor of English at the US Army’s prestigious West Point Military Academy, where so many of the US’ military leaders have been forged. Her position does not however, appear to require a slavish devotion to order and military hierarchy, to judge by the common theme of consent and dissent running through her three previous books. Samet believes that education is not about following set rules, but about learning to think. With Leadership, she makes a clear statement that the hallmark of a good leader is not the specific knowledge to overcome a given situation, but the open mind and breadth of knowledge to adapt to any situation.

Samet’s leadership, found in the combined weight of the wisdom she has compiled, is disruptive, and seems as if it would be more at home amongst startups than the military. As she argues in her introduction however, such preconceptions about leadership are precisely what constrains bad leaders; good leadership applies everywhere. The point is reinforced halfway through the compilation, in a section on ‘Cultivating Trust’, with the inclusion of an extract by Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, on what the US military has decided to call ‘Mission Command’. This concept boils down to teams trusting their leaders to set good directions, and leaders trusting their teams to get the job done without micromanagement.

Trust is just one of the leadership fields and attributes Samet has identified. Others include ‘Emulating Heroes’, ‘Learning from Failure’, and ‘Taking Responsibility’. In total there are fifteen themes here, divided between Chapters that build a gradual narrative of leadership, and Albums that highlight a series of traits renowned leaders have shown in the past. This structure is neat, though in deference to people’s differing and specific interests Samet has also provided an index of the collected writings by field of interest. If it is only the writings on the introspection and motivation of leaders that interest a reader, Samet is happy to point the way. The intent appears to have been to make these manifold writings as approachable as possible, and in this it is successful. Leadership can be consumed as a long narrative, building the lessons of the classics one on top of another, or in specific bites that will reveal single sparks of wisdom and brilliance.

The diversity in the selection of writings reinforces the notion that Leadership is intended to be a book with broad readership. Samet is never predictable in in the texts she has chosen, but equally none of them feel out of place. She has drawn from across history and the globe, and from such a breadth of genre (including fiction, history, biography, poetry, and theatre) that there is something for almost everyone here. To M’s eternal chagrin I have an underdeveloped appreciation for poetry, so I may learn more from Virgil than I do from Rosanna Warren, yet I cannot deny that here they reinforce a common theme in different literary languages. As we have previously discussed, the art in compiling and editing others’ work is that where you place them in relation to other pieces in a book, cannot but affect how they are read and interpreted. Samet has put as much thought, deliberation, and care into the architecture of her book as she has the materials from which she has built it. Russian fiction, Mikhail Zoschenko’s Electrification, follows neatly into a reflection on healthcare from The New Yorker, Personal Best by the remarkable Atul Gawande. A New York Times article on ‘Top Chef’ winner Barbara Lynch precedes an extract from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, which is effortlessly followed by a slice of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A tract on US Second World War General Omar Bradley finds a natural home besides a Zen anecdote from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Onwards it goes throughout Leadership. Such is the deftness of Samet’s construction that I can not recall a single jarring transition amongst the book’s 707 pages.

Leadership’s subtitle is Essential Writings By Our Greatest Thinkers and while American and European writings and leaders are in the majority, the ‘our’ in that subtitle is indeed inclusive of a great many cultures across the globe. There are, to name only a few examples, writings on or from Sun Tzu, of course, Leo Tolstoy, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Ghandi, and Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, the Timurid Prince whose conquests in Afghanistan began the creation of the Mughal Empire.

The greatest test of a book such as Leadership is not the works that form it, nor the manner in which they are compiled, but the lessons they leave you with. I read Leadership not at once, but while diving in and out of the other works we have recently discussed. Leadership did not suffer from being periodically spurned, and indeed it may have benefited from it, as over the course of the weeks in which it has sat in my book pile the themes that Samet has woven through her book took root in my mind. I came away better able to articulate the leadership virtues I already prize, trust and responsibility, and with a new appreciation of persuasion and the value of understanding the leadership system in which I inhabit. Perhaps most satisfying of all, for Samet, I also came away with a dangerously subversive glint in my eye.

Much of my praise for Leadership is that it can be for anyone, yet many people will find it is not for them. The lessons it imparts are at times useful, at others profound, yet they all relate to the challenge of interacting with people who look to you for guidance. For such readers a copy of Samet’s Leadership will last you far longer than the latest management bible, full as they are of jargon and diluted ideas, and will leave you much better off. For others, Leadership’s time is perhaps not yet; but keep the memory of this conversation in the back of your mind because there may yet come a day when you are ready to embark on its journey.

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