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Timothy R. Clark: Learning leadership from biography

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 7:00 a.m. MDT

Lee Iaccoca poses with the new twelve-cylinder Maybach 57 S as the car is unveiled at the Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills dealership Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

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“What books are you reading on leadership?” is a question I get a lot. To tell you the truth, I don’t read many books on leadership. Most of them aren’t worth a pinch of snuff. My advice: Consume biographies. They are the best manuals on the subject. A good biography is a leadership tutorial because it presents issues in human context. It helps us understand principles and practices in real situations and under various conditions. Here’s a few examples from my own study, biographies that delivered crucial lessons at crucial times. The first four hearken back to my high school days.

"The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." What I learned from this account was a focused and disciplined approach to goal-setting. This venerable founding father would subject himself to careful self-examination and make plans for improvement. He took a planned and systematic approach to developing skills and attributes of character.

"Washington: The Indispensable Man" by James Thomas Flexner. I read this as a teenager, and I still have my original marked-up copy. I learned that Washington inspired an allegiance from his troops that literally held the continental army together. Washington was a formal, reserved and private man. He was not a gregarious, engaging, outgoing man. Nevertheless, his greatest strength was his ability to wear power lightly, to resist the temptation to amass it for personal gain. As the author explains, "This George Washington was obviously a strong man. He would be a prodigy if he did not try to make himself king.”

"Iaccoca: An Autobiography." For you younger readers, this man was the CEO of Chrysler Corporation during the 1980s. His biography is a study in contrasts from Washington. He was a shameless self-promoter, a one-man marketing firm and a leader who, when he left the company, did not leave a legacy of leaders behind him. As much as it teaches us what to do and be, this biography charitably teaches us the opposite as well.

"Spencer W. Kimball" by Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr. I learned from this great spiritual leader the importance of earnest effort and complete honesty with self. Though I believe that God imbues men with a moral sense, this biography taught me of my personal responsibility to develop it. As the 12th President of the LDS Church himself said, “It is a demanding and relentless task to develop Christ-like attributes.” It requires that we push through inertia and then fatigue to our outer limits, and yet it can all be done with good humor and optimism.

"The Life of Samuel Johnson" by Thomas Babington Macaulay. This biography will be unfamiliar to most. It’s a short, literary profile of one of the most eminent and yet tormented English writers of the 18th century. I learned that leadership often has more to do with emotional than raw intelligence. Johnson, for instance, was brilliant, but he wore people out with his irritable and sarcastic behavior. If you want to be a philosopher, you can be petulant. But if you want to be a leader, treat people with respect and give up your bad habits.

"General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman" by Ed Cray. Gen. Marshall is an American historical figure who deserves more study. Through a combination of skill, dedication and character, he built trust in every direction. Joseph Stalin said about him, “I would trust Gen. Marshall with my life.” PresidentTruman called him “the greatest living American.” And Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him, “I have seen a great many soldiers in my lifetime and you, sir, are the finest soldier I have ever known.”

"Churchill: A Biography" by Roy Jenkins. Certainly Churchill’s life is full of lessons, but among them is the the importance of language. Churchill was an uncommonly gifted writer and orator. He was willing to pay the price of preparation in order to communicate clearly and compellingly. His phrase-making skills rallied Britain during the dark hours of WWII. In spite of his vaulted ambition and ceaseless efforts to “cut a figure,” you can’t deny the impact of his language, as when he observed, “We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow worm.”

What biographies have taught you valuable lessons in leadership? Send me your comments.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners.com

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