When it comes to books, it’s pretty rare that I get intimidated. I read all kinds of books, including ones that only the harshest college professors would assign. And yet I must admit that for many years I steered clear of anything by David Foster Wallace. I often heard super literate friends talking in glowing terms about his books and essays. I even put a copy of his tour de force Infinite Jest on my nightstand at one point, but I just never got around to reading it.
I’m happy to report that has now changed. It started last year when I watched “The End of the Tour,” a great movie with Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg that takes place when Wallace was on the road somewhat reluctantly promoting Infinite Jest. The movie made Wallace seem so damn interesting, and it really humanized him for me. In addition to shedding light on the nature of his literary genius, it also foreshadows the depression that led him to commit suicide in 2008. Recently, I also watched an amazing video of Wallace’s famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. It is one of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a long time.
Then this past May, Library of America came out with String Theory, a short volume of Wallace’s essays on tennis. The book gave me the perfect opportunity to give Wallace a try, because I really enjoy tennis. I gave up tennis when I got fanatical about Microsoft. (During those intense years, my only exercise was running around the office and jumping up and down.) I’m now back on the court at least once a week and have built a pretty solid game for a 61-year old who can’t hit a lot of winners from the baseline.
I would say to anyone who likes tennis as much as I do, you have to read String Theory. You’ll take away insights that go way beyond what you get by reading the typical article in a tennis magazine or listening to a color commentator on TV. In this respect, the book reminded me of John McPhee’s classic Levels of the Game, about Arthur Ashe’s 1968 U.S. Open victory, and The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’s brilliant book about the evolution of the game of football.
Wallace is insightful about the sport partly because he was a very good junior player when he was growing up in the late ’70s, using his brilliant math mind to understand and play all the angles on the court. His personal experience gave him a lasting appreciation for the physical and mental gifts you need to be truly great.
As much as I loved the book for its insights on the game, I loved it just as much for the writing itself. I now understand why people talk about David Foster Wallace with the same kind of awe that tennis fans use to talk about a Roger Federer or Serena Williams. Wallace’s ability to use language is mind-blowing. He’s an artist who approaches a canvas with the exact same oil paints everyone before him has used and then applies them in breathtaking new and creative ways.
The first thing you have to get used to with Wallace is his non-linear expository style. You just have no idea where Wallace’s mind or story will go next, like a great tennis player who never telegraphs a shot. An essay that starts out describing his childhood tennis competitions in Illinois will flow into fascinating eddies on calculus, geometry, meteorology, and engineering. Fortunately, almost all of his narrative digressions are both fascinating and surprisingly easy to follow, even when Wallace uses lots of footnotes. (Even some of the footnotes have footnotes!)
When I was putting off reading Wallace, I assumed his writing would be pretentious. I was wrong. Yes, there are lots of words you’ll have to look up online. But even with all the SAT words, Wallace just doesn’t sound like he’s trying to prove he went to a fancy college. For every reference to Aquinas or Wagner, there’s a reference to Beavis or Danny DeVito.
I came away with the sense that Wallace felt compelled to bend language like a metal spoon not to show off his supernatural ability but simply to allow him to capture all the keen observations his mind was constantly making. It’s almost impossible to illustrate this idea with a single passage of his writing—so I encourage you to pick up String Theory or one of his other books and see for yourself. But I can give you at least a hint of what I’m talking about. Here’s a passage from a review of Tracy Austin’s memoir, which was less about the book than about our unrealistic expectations of our sports heroes:
Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define, and true technē so rarely visible (much less televisable), that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it’s just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn’t really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant’s glass jaw or Eliot’s inability to hit the curve.
With the fancy words, English-major allusions, and winding sentences, it’s the opposite of the elegantly simple language of Hemingway. But it’s no less articulate, perceptive, truthful, or profound. That’s why I’m now on a big Wallace kick. I still haven’t read Infinite Jest, at a whopping 1,079 pages, but I know I’ll get to it. Because this troubled genius, who died way too young, was the real deal.
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Most casual observers of history probably don’t have a great deal of familiarity with the story of Adolfo Suárez.
But to read Archie Brown’s fascinating book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, is to see an illustration that leaders like Suárez, who served as prime minister of Spain from 1976 to 1981, possess leadership styles and capacities that are incredibly effective, and depressingly rare.
After General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, tensions were high. The country had just emerged from nearly four decades of authoritarianism, and faced a number of possible futures—many of them bloody. Suárez, who had come from the right-wing Franco regime, could have tried to rule through intimidation and exclusion. Instead, he made it a priority to bring the left-wing leaders of the Communist and Socialist parties into the fold. Through negotiation, persuasion, and some very adroit coalition-building, he convinced those around him of the importance of democracy and pluralism, staving off a military coup and eventually creating the constitutional monarchy that exists today. At one point, Suárez convinced the parliament that was appointed under Franco—at that time, the “old elite”—to abolish itself to make way for elected parties. For scholars of leadership, it’s hard to imagine a better illustration of skill than that.
The story of Suárez is one of a series of case studies that animate Brown’s book and make it an important and unusual read. Whereas most books about political leadership are chronologies, mapping the rise and fall of leaders over time, this one is more of a taxonomy. Brown takes a deep look at the traits and tendencies leaders exhibit, and the categories they fall into, as a way of understanding the egos, motivations, and behaviors responsible for so much progress, and so much suffering, in the world. Throughout, he presents a new way to think about today’s challenges—and the people we entrust with solving them.
Brown’s core argument is exactly what his title suggests: despite a worldwide fixation on strength as a positive quality, strong leaders—those who concentrate power and decision-making in their own hands—are not necessarily good leaders. On the contrary, Brown argues that the leaders who make the biggest difference in office, and change millions of lives for the better, are the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate—the ones who recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers.
To make his case, Brown sorts successful leaders into two categories. “Redefining” leaders radically change the political landscape, not by “[seeking] centre ground” but by “[moving] the centre in their direction.” Brown puts Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson in this category, because several of their signature achievements—FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s War on Poverty and dedication to civil rights—have had a major and lasting impact on American society. We tend to think of these men as strong leaders, and in many ways we’re right. But Brown shows a different side of the story: because of the checks and balances of the American political system, neither FDR nor LBJ had the ability to govern by fiat. Their strength lay in their power to persuade—to convince their colleagues in government, and the American people, to understand and support their point of view.
“Transformational” leaders, Brown argues, go a step further, by fundamentally transforming the political or economic system itself. If you’re dismayed at how rare it is for an American president to reshape our political or economic system, as many voters today seem to be, consider that the last transformational American leader, in Brown’s analysis, was Abraham Lincoln. Transformational leaders are the ones, like Suárez, who leave their country a completely different place than they found it. In this category, Brown lists Charles de Gaulle, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, and Nelson Mandela.
We don’t need to look far to find evidence of the overwhelming tendency to equate strong leadership with good leadership. As Brown puts it, think about the last time you heard someone say, “What we need is a weak leader.”
Brown does a wonderful job of showing how the same qualities that seem so appealing in strong leaders can lead, in the mildest cases, to bad decisions—and, in the most extreme cases, to death and suffering on a massive scale. These qualities can be boiled down to a belief, on the part of the leader, that he or she—and usually he—is the only one who knows what the country needs, and the only one who can deliver it.
The danger of this kind of thinking is obvious when you consider some of the examples Brown features: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao. Though their stories are notorious, it’s well worth reading Brown’s insightful analysis of each man’s rise and reign.
But some of the most fascinating profiles in the book are of leaders on the other end of the spectrum—the ones you probably didn’t dwell on in history class. These leaders didn’t insist on their own infallibility or claim exclusive power over policy decisions. And yet they pulled off incredible feats of leadership simply by working with others and seeking advice when they needed it.
Though The Myth of the Strong Leader is about political leadership, you come away from Brown’s analysis with a deeper understanding of leadership in general.
Through my work in the business world and at the foundation, I’ve seen firsthand how ineffective and even dangerous it can be when leaders make decisions alone—and how much good we can do when we work together. Good leaders will challenge themselves, bring in fresh thinking and expert advice, and not only invite but seriously consider opposing viewpoints.
In our foundation’s work in the global health space, we see issue after issue that can’t be addressed by a single leader, no matter how strong. Take the example of polio eradication. For decades, polio ravaged India—and the conventional thinking was that the country was simply too big, its rural communities too remote, and its poverty too widespread for the virus to be stopped. But in 2012, the government of India, working closely with the global health community, beat the odds. A massive vaccination campaign mobilized 2 million volunteers, community leaders, and frontline health workers who improvised and innovated, refusing to leave a single child behind. UNICEF helped coordinate. WHO helped track the virus and vaccine supplies. My colleagues at the foundation, working with the Rotary International and the CDC, lent additional support and expertise. In the end, the effort took the kind of leadership Suárez and others exhibited so clearly: collaboration, humility, and a willingness to listen.
Whether we’re avid political scientists or not, we can learn a lot from Brown’s analysis of leadership.
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