Book Review – On Leadership by John W. Gardner

This year is the 20th Anniversary of the publication of John Gardner’s landmark book, On Leadership (The Free Press, New York, 1990).  This eminently readable book is a remarkable treatise worth studying by anyone who leads, manages, follows, or thinks that they can get out of the way.  That’s everyone!  The content is so fresh that it could have been written yesterday!

Gardner analyzes the nature of leadership.  His definition of leadership is “…the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leaders and their followers.”

He believes that “Follower” is too passive and dependence indicative, and recommends using  constituent instead.  He carefully outlines overarching tasks of leadership: Envisioning Goals, Affirming Values, The Regeneration of Values, Motivating, Managing, Achieving Workable Unity, Serving as a Symbol, Representing the Group, and – critically – Renewing. 

“Just as there are failures of leadership, there are failures of ‘followership’

Gardner powerfully presents the role of followers (constituents!), dialogue between leaders and followers (constituents!), and how to strengthen constituents.  

Recognition of the contexts in which human enterprise occur is essential and that attributes of leadership depend on the situation is primary and key to leadership, if it is to be effective. Gardner presents an exhaustive array of leadership attributes for study, and defines how each affects and contributes to leadership.  That discussion leads him into an exposition on Power, “…how to understand, obtain and utilize the capacity to bring about certain intended consequences in the behavior of others”.  

The Moral Dimension is not neglected by Gardner, but presented as paramount to understanding relations between leaders and constituents.  He illustrates it through consideration of the release of human possibilities; individual and group; law, custom and belief; individual initiative and responsibility.

He raises comprehension of  large-scale organized systems, where  “Leaders must understand not only the intricate patterns of their own segment but also the working of neighboring segments”,  the challenge of fragmentation to the goal of realizing the Common Good.  As he represented for decades through the organization, Common Cause, “A society in which pluralism is not undergirded by shared values and held together by a measure of mutual trust simply cannot survive”, and “Leaders unwilling to seek mutually workable arrangements with systems external to their own are not serving the long term interests of their constituents”.  Therefore, he presents a method for “knitting together” the pieces through networking (yes, networking was “big” in 1990, too!), conflict resolution, coalition building, politics and institutional politics.

For Gardner, the cornerstone of leadership success is Community“Failure of leadership may be traceable to a breakdown in the sense of community”.  To help construct, nurture and maintain Community, he presents its ingredients, an extensive, but provisional,  list used to teach skills in building and rebuilding Community that are essential for a leader

Continuous Renewing of systems is highlighted as an essential task, and one that is not just a question of excellence.  Rigidity and complacency, corroded or abandoned values, forgotten goals, outmoded procedures and habits bring down the best of communities, without renewal.  So, Gardner shines light into the attitudes and practices that gather gloom and darkness to help readers find the path to healthy renewal.  He carefully reviews the process of maturing, continuity and change, the trance of nonrenewal, steps toward renewal, and the leader’s need for renewal to lead down that path.  The steps toward renewal that he encourages include the release of talent and energy, reassignment, motivation, pluralism/alternatives/dissent, Touch the Earth, communication, science, the Visible Future, reorganization, and greater detail of the leader’s need for renewal

Gardner sees another one of the paramount tasks of leaders to be Renewers of Culture, and the release of talent and energy is key to that renewal.  Leaders cannot do every task required for an organization to function effectively by themselves, including renewing its culture.  They must share even leadership tasks with a team in order to succeed.   

Gardner devotes a substantial section of this work to leadership development from its early stages through lifelong growth, and is very clear to emphasize “Outside the Classroom” development, since leaders need followers (constituents), and they are not found in a lecture hall!  Among the key elements of development is learning how to motivate people, including one’s self, since a leader whose followers only exhibit passive allegiance will soon be out the door.  The commitment required to keep values fresh and revitalized and how leaders must, to use a time-worn phrase, “walk the talk” are essential to catalyzing that motivation.

John Gardner’s goal is not to prop up institutions or “merely” deliver excellent products and services; it is The Release of Human Possibilities.  That release requires positive attitudes toward the future through tough-minded optimism even in the most troubled of times, delivered with confidence, great expectations and powered by the will to act.

“When faith is present in the leader, it communicates to followers with powerful effect. In the conventional mode people want to know whether the followers believe in the leader; a more searching question is whether the leader believes in the followers.”  John W. Gardner


1 Response to Book Review – On Leadership by John W. Gardner

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