Book Review: Leaders: Myth and Reality

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I’ve been waiting 40 years for this book. I read James MacGregor Burns book Leadership when it came out in 1978. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking book, but there were several things I didn’t like.

Leadership was primarily about political leaders. Political leaders are important. But most of the leadership I’ve experienced in my life was by Marines and businesspeople.

I thought Burns’ book was too leader-focused. In my experience, the performance of the people around a leader and the situation had a lot to do with whether a leader was successful.

Burns identified leadership as a moral function in the sense of “It’s not leadership unless it’s for a moral good.” My view then and now is that leadership is value-neutral. There are effective leaders who are evil and effective leaders who are not. There are effective leaders that pursue noble ends and others who pursue power for its own sake.

Leaders: Myth and Reality by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jay Mangone, is a very different book. It’s about leaders, not leadership. Starting from what leaders do yields a more clear-eyed view of leadership.

The structure is inspired by Plutarch’s classic, The Lives of The Noble Greeks And Romans. Like Plutarch, McChrystal and his co-authors considered leaders in pairs.  Plutarch analyzed different leaders to determine their character. The authors of Leaders pair leaders to study the act of leadership itself.

The authors treat Robert E. Lee differently from other leaders in the book.  Lee isn’t paired with another leader. He stands alone as McChrystal’s early example of great leadership. Leaders studies leaders who were founders, geniuses, zealots, heroes, power brokers, and reformers.

Each chapter includes a list of key books for further reading, profiles of two leaders, and analysis of how they led. The authors emphasize the leader as part of a social system, the influence of the situation, and the influence of “followers.”

Two chapters and an epilogue follow the chapters on leaders. One chapter describes the three myths of leadership and analyzes them. The final chapter is about redefining leadership.

Read this book straight through.

You may be like my friend Art, who habitually reads the final chapters of a book before working his way through it. Don’t do that with this book. You’ll get more from this book if you follow the trail of examples before you get to the reasoning.

I found that I would read a pair of the profiles and analysis and then need time to reflect on what I had read. You may find the same thing.

Bottom Line

Leaders: Myth and Reality is an excellent book about how leaders practice leadership. It identifies and challenges many common beliefs about leadership and suggests new ways to think about leadership and to prepare and evaluate people for leadership roles. It is the best analysis and overview of leaders and leadership I have ever read.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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