Review: Leading Minds

Leading Minds

Leading MindsHoward E. Gardner with Emma Laskin. New York: Basic Books, 2011 (Review is of the 1996 edition).

Summary: Studies how leaders effectively communicate with the minds of those they lead using case studies of eleven direct and indirect leaders.

Howard E. Gardner is a cognitive psychologist who works in the field of education. One of his most significant works is The Unschooled Mind, the thesis of which is that outside of domains where an adult has great expertise, most adults theorize about the world with the mind of a five year old. In this work, Gardner focuses on effective leadership as an exercise of communication with the minds of others, seeking to influence them to action that follows one’s leadership. For Gardner, storytelling is central, and effective leaders are not only able to tell a story that communicates with those who share their expertise, but also with a wider public responding with the “unschooled mind” of a five year old. He identifies two types of leaders, indirect leaders, like Albert Einstein, and direct leaders, like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some individuals exercise both kinds of leadership.

Gardner considers eleven individuals who exercised leadership in a variety of domains:

  • Margaret Mead: Anthropology
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer: Physics
  • Robert Maynard Hutchins: Higher education
  • Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Business (General Motors)
  • George Marshall, Military and Statecraft
  • Pope John XXIII: Religion
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: American women
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil rights
  • Margaret Thatcher: Political
  • Jean Monnet: International leadership
  • Mahatma Gandhi: International leadership

After introductory chapters outlining his basic approach and methodology, Gardner devotes a chapter to each of these leaders, except for the last two, who he considers together. What is fascinating is that he looks at the development of these leaders, the story they told and how they adapted their stories when their leadership moved beyond those who shared their expertise, and how effective they were. He looks at indirect leaders like Jean Monnet, who essentially served other national leaders in forming the framework of the European Union, and direct leaders like Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. who communicated a compelling, missional story for General Motors. He also considers their areas of failure. For a leader like Robert Maynard Hutchins, his inability to embody his story with the faculty at the University of Chicago, and include a wide constituency in his vision were critical failures.

From these profiles, Gardner identified six constants of leadership:

  1. The Story: Leaders must have a central story or message that includes those necessary for accomplishing her vision. Often these are inclusive, but not always, as in political or military conflict.
  2. The Audience: A story cannot succeed without being heard and heeded, and the effective leader is able to communicate in a nuanced fashion that different audiences will understand.
  3. The Organization: The influence of a leader’s story depends on an organization for implementation–be it a business, a political party, a movement. Margaret Mead never created an organization and had no school of followers after she died.
  4. The Embodiment: Leaders, especially direct leaders, must embody their story. George Marshall not only spoke about a vision for service but embodied it in his integrity, hard work, and willingness to work behind the scenes for the success of the war effort.
  5. Direct and Indirect Leadership. Indirect leaders influence through symbolic products whereas direct leaders engage with their followers as they articulate a story.
  6. The Issue of Expertise. Those who move from leadership within a domain to wider leadership, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, do so because of proven expertise. The paradox is that the wider one’s leadership, the less their technical expertise alone is a factor.

Two appendices in the form of extended tables chart Gardner’s analysis, the first consider the eleven leaders in this study, the second ten world leaders during the World War II era.

I did have one reservation about this study. It seemed to me that Gardner’s approach presupposed his conclusions. This does not necessarily invalidate his conclusions, given that this work extends prior research. But I would be cautious in considering this as an all-encompassing account of leadership. For me, it suggested the importance of having, and effectively communicating to different audiences, one’s story of a preferred future.

Gardner’s eleven leaders, although they each have their failings, are generally positive figures. His account of story and the unschooled mind also recognizes that some leaders are able to communicate compelling stories and gather a following with very bad consequences, as in the case of Hitler or Mussolini. There are also instructive lessons for those who are so “wonky” about their stories, that they are unable to garner a following outside those who are already sufficiently wonky. There is also a quite wonderful lesson in the stories of those like Pope John XXIII, George Marshall, and Eleanor Roosevelt who embodied the stories they conveyed, and so were able to lead all the more effectively.

Most of us both lead and follow in our lives. Gardner’s book shows important qualities of story, inclusion, embodiment and expertise as critical in leading well. He also helps us when we follow, to listen to the stories leaders tell and the congruence between story and the life of the leader. It seems to me vital to consider whether the story is one that works for all who a potential leader would lead, or whether those stories will intensify the divides between those included and those excluded.

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