From the Pages of History

Stories, Pictures, Quotes & Trivia (and more) that tell the story of the world.

Leadership: Challenging Authority


This is a paper I wrote in college; it goes through the 16 leaders in Garry Wills’ book Certain Trumpets, and how they challenged authority or the status quo.

Challenging the status quo is often part of a leader’s job. The writers in Traditional Classics on Leadership reflect on when challenges to authority should be permissible and what those challenges should look like. The leaders in Certain Trumpets demonstrate how successful this can be when done right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had clear ideas of what he wanted to accomplish and he sometimes “exasperated” those around him on his quest to achieve them (33). However, his unorthodox way of “[drawing] in others around him” resulted in effective, dynamic plans that worked (29).

Harriet Tubman challenged authority in a very obvious way—she actually went out and broke the law by leading slaves to freedom. But she was right in what she did because she was a legitimate leader in pursuit of moral ends and she acted justly, defying unjust leaders and tyrants.

Reform is generally opposed at first and takes a while to be implemented. That did not stop Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most powerful advocates for the fixing of problems in America. She used tact when needed but her commitment to what she saw as necessary reform did not waver.

Diplomatic leader Andrew Young may not have been in the forefront of the civil rights movement, but his behind-the-scenes work made sure everything else ran smoothly. He was just as much a part of the fight for black equality as Martin Luther King, Jr.

If there was anyone who surprised the traditionalists, it was decisive and insightful Napoleon. His dynamic, genius way of fighting won him victories against armies much larger and stronger than his.

David was destined to replace Saul but that king fought hard to keep his position. Described by Wills as a “free spirit” who headed a “rebel band,” David possessed a warrior spirit and his daring attacks solidified his position as the new king of Israel (107).

Businessman Ross Perot used efficient ways to raise sales. His ideas on how to better business were ingenious and extremely profitable. His active management styles were somewhat abnormal, but they made for success.

Being a traditional leader, he was expected to follow Catholic customs closely, but Pope John XXIII still found ways to focus on what he felt was important. Though it made some in the church squirm, “Pope John knew that the church must always be in a process of renewal…to get back to its original inspiration” (143).

General of the Continental Army that challenged the British Empire and won America its independence, George Washington was a determined leader willing to give his all in the fight for freedom. Neither clashes with the British army nor clashes within the new American government deterred him.

Socrates was not one to shy away from confrontations. He would engage anyone who cared to talk with him on philosophical subjects. Both the Wills and Wren texts contain examples of talks he had with those of differing opinions. But he was not afraid to challenge and engage.

Due to a previous devastating sickness and her association with an influential friend, Mary Baker Eddy was not afraid to go out on a limb and start her own denomination, the Christian Scientists. She pushed through opposition to become a part of religious history.

Carl Stotz did not necessarily challenge authority, but he did confront the notion that organized baseball was only for grown-ups. He did something unconventional, he did it with his heart, and he was passionate about sticking to the original vision.

Dedicated dancer Martha Graham’s unconventional inspirations and styles resulted in the revolution of dance. Other experts were skeptical, but she ended up having quite a lasting influence in that area of the arts.

The civil rights moment would not have been the same without Martin Luther King, Jr. He directly confronted the injustices of 1960s southern America, whatever the consequences. From energetic speechmaking to direct challenges, he was unafraid to challenge the unjust authority.

Opportunistic Cesare Borgia shocked many with his “effrontery” and brutal tactics; however, it could not be denied that he got the job done (232). Flexible, a go-getter, and just plain lucky, his career was short but brilliant.

Dorothea Day was driven by a desire to help the helpless. The rough experiences she had in her youth gave her a real understanding of the conditions of the poor and she was unconventional in her desires to help them.

Some of these leaders challenged authority; some challenged the status quo or established beliefs or attitudes. They all had a goal and were able to lead followers in pursuit of it. Though not every leader has to challenge authority, it is often a part of the responsibility and should be prepared for.

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