Monday 12 October 2020

REVIEW: The Leader's Bookshelf (2020)

By Thomas Scarborough

BOOK REVIEW: The Leader’s Bookshelf: 25 Great Books and Their Readers

Martin Cohen. Rowman & Littlefield, $32 (288p) ISBN 978-1-53813-576-1

The Philosopher by Marlina Vera 2018
It was Martin Cohen's sideways look at philosophy which propelled him into the limelight with Routledge's 101 Philosophy Problems (1999). In his latest book, the author would seem to recall his offbeat roots—like a band returning to its original sound.

There is an obsession in business and management circles today with leadership theory (I myself hold two Master's degrees in leadership!) and the books which propound it. There are hundreds of them, if not thousands, many of them fresh off the press. Mostly, they adhere to the ‘transformational’ model—which typically advises vision, character, and influence, and a few things besides. Such books are generally written by people who claim to have tried the formula and succeeded (many have not).

Yet, rather than read books by leaders, why not read the books the leaders read? What were their own sources of inspiration? It would seem to make eminent sense. What's more, for the doubters, Martin Cohen meticulously traces how exactly the leaders' reading is connected with their leadership: thought leaders, political leaders, corporate leaders, and leaders of many kinds. While this is not an entirely new idea,* it is still fresh, and reveals approaches to leadership which are in some way the same—only different—to those of the ‘transformational’ leadership genre.

Martin Cohen selects twenty-five ‘great books’ (by Plato, George Orwell, Herman Melville, Alex Haley, and so on) and twenty-one people who read them (Harry Kroto, Jacob Riis, Rachel Carson, Malcom X and so on), mixing them all into ten chapters.  With a potpourri like this, one is hardly going to find a systematic leadership theory. A review in Publisher’s Weekly calls the book a ‘fun yet haphazard survey’. Yet there is ‘method in the madness’. One finds it in the chapter titles. The ten chapters of the book represent an orderly progression of concepts. It seems worth listing the chapter titles here:

Meet the Wild Things (which is to say, tame the wild things of life)

Roll the Dice (which is to say, just give it a go, and see)

Save the Planet—One Page at a Time! (give a care for the wider world)

Search for Life’s Purpose

See the World in the Wider Social Context

Be Ready to Reinvent Yourself

Set Your Thinking Free

Make a Huge Profit—and Then Share It

Recognise the Power of Symbols

Follow Your Personal Legend

In each of these chapters, Martin Cohen describes the books, and describes the people who read them, then ties the two together—and like the best of biographers and historians, drops a sprinkle-sugar of fascinating facts and anecdotes into his text: for instance, John D. Rockefeller’s (miserly) penny in the Sunday School plate, a lost and lonely young Barack Obama’s attachment to a children’s book, or Richard Branson’s zany experiments with chance.

Is there any leadership theory we can glean from the book? In spite of its free-wheeling style, there surely is. All these leaders found a guiding thought which resonated with them, and they stuck to it; they often had a vision for a wider world, and its many subtleties and interconnections; they found, too, the ‘vision, character, and influence’ of the leadership books—yet so very differently. Theirs was vision which was not bound to material outcomes, character which did not always match cultural norms, and influence which seemed an after-effect rather than a carefully nurtured goal in itself.

In an important sense, one needs to note that this book is not a standard work of research—and yet it is thoughtful, balanced, and broad. It represents personal insight and wisdom, from a well informed philosopher. This is what Cohen brings to the book. In fact, the more serious leadership theory often is little more than unsupported conjecture, where the conjectural nature of it is well disguised.

There is something of an Easter egg for philosophers at the very end of the book—tucked away in the afterword. Cohen says that time and again, in the reading of successful people, ‘philosophers and philosophical works pop up as aspirational or influential texts more often than any others’. At the end of the day, it is philosophers who rule the world—by proxy as it were. And yet, what do the philosophers themselves read? In the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein anyway (one of the thought leaders described in this book) it turns out that it was a work of literary imagination, indeed humour: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne (1759). This is one of the many surprising literary connections made by Cohen's book.

* A popular book of its kind, also The Leader's Bookshelf (without subtitle), surveys the reading of high-ranking military officers of the US Navy. Published by the Naval Institute Press (2017).


Keith said...

The statement, from the post above, that especially got me nodding in ascent was this: ‘Theirs was vision which was not bound to material outcomes, character which did not always match cultural norms, and influence which seemed an after-effect rather than a carefully nurtured goal in itself’.

To those commendable sentiments, the greatest leaders in history — reasonable definitions of ‘greatest’ being in abundance, or course — have resisted conformity. The differentiator is that these leaders have imagined new realities, and shattered moulds so as to create original (not just warmed-over) models of behaviour, notions of success, and how best to get there.

I look forward to exploring how Martin’s book weaves the inspirational connections between acknowledged leaders, books read, and foundational philosophies.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Yesterday I was looking for a specific bureaucratic form to download from the internet. During this search all pages that opened up were covered by ad's. Why pages hide in a publicity jungle? Up to the extend that the search becomes a stress for once eliminated they courageously pop up anew, and only after this 'crusade' of closing ad's one is able to (quickly) read what one is actually looking for.

In 'The leader's bookshelf' chapter: Roll the dice, Martin concentrates mostly at the combination of Darwinism, chance and three notorious men.
The looseness in which these elements combine form into a fresh effortless reading. It is afterwards, that one adds the google brains together with Branson and Darwin to reflect upon this exact combination and a more profound message comes along which is not directly into the writing. Namely that Nature in a Darwinian sense is not exactly like an algorithm or pure chance.

Human actions should not be mistaken with a survival of the fittest when it cannot transform to certain adaptations. This hazardous entrepreneurship is a game of dice indeed, in which many of us are passively involved and as a standard, yes, enhance the game. Though from the point of view for survival we might be very well pressed like a cork into a bottle, and in that case to evolve is a rather harsh endeavour when the bottle is not as big as we liked to have thought in advance. Lions would not stay on a prairie without prey to hunt, they would move. The question is: can we?

This is only one notion about one chapter, and it is up to the reader how to comprehend the text, which brings us back to what 'The leader's bookshelf' is actually about.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

There is a strong tendency today to present leadership as a science rather than wisdom or philosophy. Yet in the majority of cases, the science is fallacious. The fallacy runs like this: this author has tested the theory; there are so many others who have done so, too. However, the failures are erased. In certain fields (religious leaders, for example) failures amount to 80% or more.

Martin Cohen said...

Thank you, Thomas, for this perceptive and thoughtful review! I particularly liked the idea that the chapters did fit into a wider frame! In fact, I think they do, but it was really created intuitively rather than consciously. And yes, the links between characters are bit like that too. The only outside review of the book (so far!) by Publishers Weekly called the book 'meandering' which shows for this reviewer the links are not clear enough. But I like the idea of subtle connections and in deed vagueness. It does give rise to new ideas, like Tess' one: "Namely that Nature in a Darwinian sense is not exactly like an algorithm or pure chance."

And I look forward to hearing more from Keith later!

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