(Originally published on LinkedIn)
I recently had the chance to hear two highly esteemed leaders speak about leadership. Both of them discussed their own experiences and shared their lists of the “essential qualities of good leaders.” While each emphasized the importance of communication, their lists were otherwise very different.
I found this fascinating, and it underscored something I have long believed to be true: leadership is actually a very personal endeavor. There’s no cookie-cutter approach or failsafe recipe to follow. The qualities that make a person a good leader will depend on his or her unique style and personality and on the specific nature of the environment in which they and their organization are operating. There are many roads to leadership success, because no two leaders, and no two organizations, are exactly the same.
I get asked all the time to recommend books about leadership. Certainly there’s no shortage of business books on the topic, and there are a number of good ones out there. However, I tend to point people toward biographies. There’s so much to learn by reading about how real leaders handled real challenges. A good biography gives insight into its subject’s character and personality, explores the challenges and opportunities they faced, and shows how they were shaped by their life’s journey. It illuminates how leaders are influenced by the broader social, political, and economic forces of their times.
Biographies also remind us that the path to becoming a strong leader is rarely straight or predictable. Ron Chernow’s recently published biography of President Ulysses S. Grant is a great example. The book tracks Grant’s journey from his Ohio boyhood to West Point to Civil War general to two-term president. But the book highlights Grant’s failures as well as his successes, giving a strong sense of the up-and-down nature of his life. It’s instructive to understand how he managed the setbacks and personal struggles he faced, from his earliest years up to his death, and still managed to have, as one review put it, “a transformative effect on his country’s history.”
Similarly, Helene Cooper’s recent biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female head of state in African history, follows her evolution from “an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner.” It offers many leadership lessons along the way, especially about perseverance in the face of adversity.
I wish there were a roadmap to becoming a good leader. That would make the job so much easier. The truth is there’s no one formula for success, but in the absence of a perfect “how-to” guide, biographies can be the next best thing.