The Risk-Takers: American Leaders in Desperate Times

Scholars have concluded that leadership is among the most studied of phenomena yet the least understood. This inability to precisely define leadership recalls Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's struggles to define pornography: “I shall not…attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that… But I know it when I see it.” Similarly, when it comes to leadership, we know it when we see it.

This book explores the leadership performance of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Katharine Graham, and Franklin D. Roosevelt at desperate moments in American history. A study of their leadership styles over a period of two centuries suggests that today's leaders might have something to gain from a back-looking perspective on this critical subject. Although this book is ostensibly about the five leaders, ultimately their performance provides a lens for the whole of the topic of leadership past and, especially, present.

While leaders seem to have the liberty to behave as they like, their freedom is bound by organizational objectives, organizational cultures that may be difficult to change, and the diverse natures of their workforce. Leadership behavior, shaped by the spirit of the times, evolves; it is about the inextricable relationships—the inseparability—among leaders, followers, and situations within organizations and societies as they respond to the inevitable urgencies for change.

The leaders in this book operated in environments over which they often had little control; a store of contextual factors substantially influence and restrain a leader's freedom of action. Our school-days history classes often paint leaders as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. This book explores the crucial impact of context and just how effectively the leaders in this book led at severe, intense, transformative—desperate—moments in our history; it attempts to put weight and texture on the cardboard cutouts. To do so, this book humbly puts forward a leadership context framework to define the contextual factors that determine a leader's prerogatives. It is about “leading snowflakes.” Because no two organizations and their contexts, like snowflakes, are ever alike, leaders must consistently adapt to new and constantly evolving internal and external circumstances.

This book suggests that there is a holistic unity to leadership and that the four leadership qualities of status, esteem, technical competence, and organizational leadership skills, always present in some measure, help leaders motivate followers. The proper mix of these four qualities may depend on the nature of the followers and the situations faced. The newly elected Lincoln arrived in the nation's capital with low status and esteem; but his savvy technical competence and strong organizational leadership skills brought success. Robert E. Lee possessed high esteem, status, and technical competence; at Gettysburg, his inability to exercise sound organizational leadership skills led to his organization's failure.

by Joel Schlesinger

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