Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership

I am an longtime fan of Howard Gardner’s writing.  A Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Gardner is the author of more than twenty books, including such classics as Changing Minds, Multiple Intelligences, and Five Minds for the Future. But this particular overview highlights some seminal findings from his study of selected great leaders, written in 1995.

Gardner’s central thesis is that leaders fashion great stories  – principally stories of identity. While it is important that a leader be a good storyteller, it is crucial that the story be embodied in his or her life. In the current vernacular, the story verifies that they walk the talk. Gardner endeavours to demonstrate his contention by examining the leadership style of eleven unquestionable leaders: Margaret Mead, Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Alfred Sloan, George Marshall, Pope John XXIII, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Jean Monnet and Mahatma Gandhi.

Stories of identity are simplified narratives that help people think  about who they are, where they come from and where they are headed. As such it helps them to understand their lives and frame their future options. And, for Gardner, this constitutes the most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal. As Harry Truman once observed, “a leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” Gardner, as always, puts it much more succinctly: “Leaders can actually lead.”

Apart from the insights derived from examining the lives of the leaders noted, two things in Gardner’s research strike a responsive chord for me. The first, which I have yet to find in other literature on leadership, is an identification of the “early markers” that likely define future leaders. Some are obvious while others are positively enlightening (at least to me).

Gardner notes that leaders are those who experienced failure early in their lives.  More specifically, he has found evidence that future leaders have often lost their fathers at an early age. As one example cited, over 60% of major British political leaders lost a parent during their childhood, most often the father. In the absence of a father, one is forced to make his (or her) own choices and thus have a greater inclination for risk taking and are willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their ends.

Other early markers are these – future leaders are:

  • Self-reliant and willing to confront people in positions of authority;
  • Highly competitive and enjoy seeking and achieving positions of control in order to achieve their goals;
  • Willing to emulate or imitate people who occupy leadership positions;
  • Able to come up with explanations or solutions that typically satisfy parties in a dispute; and 
  • Willing to expand their experiences and viewpoints by traveling beyond their homeland.

Not surprisingly, given his breakthrough analysis of intelligence, Gardner concludes that leaders posses good political and linguistic intelligences – they know how to reach and affect others and they have the capacity and skills to tell their stories persuasively. (The concept of political intelligence deserves further embellishment, which I intend to do in a future article.)

Distilling Gardner’s research and insights  on the eleven leaders he examines leads to several notable findings on the essence and attributes of leadership (or, as Gardner seeks to accomplish, defining an anatomy of leadership). For this author, exemplary leaders must:

  • Find the time for isolated reflection and getting away from the battle or mission to unclutter the mind and see “the big picture” – what Gardner calls “going to the mountaintop;”
  • Be amenable to accepting failure and limitations and be willing to learn and renew oneself – leaders expect that there will be down times but that these setbacks are opportunities to return to the fray with new vigour;
  • Have the capacity to discern the silver lining in a cloud and make lemonade when given a bunch of lemons;
  • Have high expectations of oneself as well as others; Possess the ability to translate and effectively communicate their specialized expertise to non-experts and “the unschooled mind” (a concept that Gardner expounds upon in several of his books);
  • Be a skilled communicator;
  • Have a keen interest in and understanding of people;
  • Be resourceful and energetic; and
  • Be aware of and find ways of coping with new and often complex trends.

The recipe for success implicit in Gardner’s writing, as always, mirrors a prescription for developing smart leader skill sets. Examining “lives led” is an effective way of learning important lessons about leadership. And, in my judgement, any book authored by Gardner is a worthwhile investment.