Garry Wills’ book on leadership, Certain Trumpets, provides stories of famous leaders through history. This post will deal with some of those leaders— what helped them succeed and, in some cases, what made them fail.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt empathized with people during the Great Depression because he himself was a victim of polio. He learned to overcome that and he was able to effectively encourage Americans that they too would be able to pull through their troubles, and they did.
The reason for Harriet Tubman’s success in saving slaves during the Civil War can be attributed to an injury that she suffered at the hands of a slave owner and which left her with brain damage. Says Willis, “She had already died once; she had nothing to lose” in her focused quests to bring slaves to freedom (41).
Andrew Young was not the most well known civil rights leader. However, he possessed a calmness and advocated an openness that diffused potentially explosive situations. He was often able to find middle ground between whites and blacks, rich and poor, and America and the third world.
Napoleon is considered one of the finest military leaders ever. His military leadership was superb, but when he took the kingship, it was clear that was not where his talents lay. Wills shows that he was a military man, first and foremost; he was not able to adapt to political leadership (97).
At the time of King David, Israel was a Theocracy. David was ordained by God and therefore accepted and revered by his men. Dashing, heroic, smart, popular, “literally the favored of God” as Wills calls him, he gained quite a following (108). David’s rule was so glorious his son Solomon’s “bureaucratic skills” fell far short of his father’s legacy and Israel was split in two (111).
Businessman Ross Perot understood the importance of good salesmanship. Certain Trumpets shows how he acted with purpose, “shrewdness and daring” (127). From actively training and encouraging good salespeople, to “piggybacking” on things he’d learned in order to make great what was mediocre, he was enthusiastic about what he did and that contributed to his success in sales (126).
Pope John XXIII had to follow a set of traditions, but he was able to act for the best as he saw it. Though this angered some in the Catholic Church, it won the people over to him. Certain Trumpets tells us a popular title for him was “Good Pope John” (143).
George Washington shaped history by helping to bring forth the United States of America. He was highly influential and could have used his vast power for selfish ends, but his “virtue” and consideration of the nation before himself enabled the successful development of America into a nation for the good of all (155).
Socrates learned how to juggle thinking and theorizing, with interacting with people. He did not shy away and become a hermit, but actively pursued penetrating conversations, inviting others to join him in his quests for knowledge, and that was what allowed his ideas to become so popular in his time.
Carl Stotz founded Little League baseball. Though developing a junior version of the game, setting up and outfitting teams, and dealing with the bureaucracy that followed was not easy, he did it and mobilized parents and volunteers to help. Thanks to his dedication, many young boys have the chance to take part in the great American tradition that is baseball.
Creating and linking images of black equality to the “familiar,” “old ties and commitments” of American standards like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the flag, Martin Luther King, Jr. became a powerful inspiration for striving together in pursuit of “liberty and justice for all” (222).
Not all good leaders are good people, but even from ruthless and conniving Cesare Borgia lessons can be learned. He had bravado and daring, ready to engage Lady Luck, “cope with the unexpected” and “face the unforeseen” (242). But when all else failed, Borgia could fall back on the loyal followers he had carefully developed.
Dorothy Day was firmly grounded in her Catholic faith—it inspired her to an outpouring of help to the poor and needy. And because she wisely “rarely took a confrontational stance with the church,” she was free to challenge injustice in society (259).
So, through the examples of the leaders in Certain Trumpets, it’s clear that, depending on personal idiosyncrasies and motivations, styles of leadership do vary. Compassion, focus, adaptability, discernment—these are some of the many qualities great leaders must possess or develop, if they are to lead well. The common thread running through their life stories is the consideration of something outside themselves. Whether that something was devotion to religion or sensitivity to followers, the lesson to be learned is that selfishness gets one nowhere. The memorable leaders have a great motivator and a great vision, which makes them effective.