Leaders: Myth and Reality | Book Review


What is leadership? John Maxwell’s definition is the most common answer: “Leadership is influence.” That’s true to an extent, but it’s also too simple because it’s leader-centric, as if influence flowed only one way. In their new book, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone identify three myths people believe about leaders and offer a more complex definition of leadership. Somewhat ironically for a book that criticizes leader-centricity, Leadersreaches its conclusions by examining the lives of thirteen leaders.

First up is Robert E. Lee, the “Marble Man” of the Confederacy, who profoundly illustrates the distance between the myths and realities of leadership. Lee was admired by many white Americans for his martial valor and personal virtue. That admiration was given even though Lee lost the Civil War and miserably failed the greatest moral test of the nineteenth century by defending a way of life built on white supremacy and black slavery. His leadership consisted in what he symbolized, then, not in what achieved — or rather, thankfully failed to achieve.

Then come several chapters in which McChrystal and his coauthors pair leaders under six headings: Founders (Walt Disney and Coco Chanel), Geniuses (Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein), Zealots (Maximilien Robespierre and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi), Heroes (Zheng He and Harriet Tubman), Power Brokers (Boss Tweed and Margaret Thatcher), and Reformers (Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.). These leaders often exercised influence despite their personal flaws (e.g., Boss Tweed) or the immorality of their causes (e.g., Zarqawi). Their profiles remind readers that leaders are flesh-and-blood people, not statues on pedestals.

Taken both singly and in pairs, these profiles make Leaders a fascinating book, biographically informative but also analytically shrewd. As you read each short “life,” you come to realize that leaders exercise an important role, but not in the way that a simplistic definition portrays. Too simple an understanding of leadership results in myths about leadership, which McChrystal, Eggers, and Mangone describe this way:

  • The Formulaic Myth: In our attempt to understand process, we strive to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, and always dependent upon particular circumstances.
  • The Attribution Myth: We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them. We’re led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.
  • The Results Myth: We say that leadership is the process of driving groups of people toward outcomes. That’s true, to a point, but it’s much broader than that. In reality, leadership describes what leaders symbolize more than what they achieve. Productive leadership requires that followers find a sense of purpose and meaning in what their leaders represent, such as social identity or some future opportunity.

The key concepts to take away from the authors’ description of these myths are the importance of contextrelationship, and symbolism in leadership. According to the authors, when those concepts are taken into account, leadership can be defined as “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.” This implies that leaders exercise a twofold role as “a bottom-up servant to enable action and a top-down symbol to motivate and provide for meaning.”

I write this review as a Pentecostal minister and editor of a Christian leadership magazine — intentionally named Influence, by the way. Though Leaders is a secular leadership book, it teaches several valuable lessons that can benefit pastors and other church leaders. I’ll close with four that came repeatedly to mind as I read the book:

First, as pastors and leaders in your church, there is no foolproof, multi-step formula for becoming or producing other leaders. You should have a leadership pipeline and provide leadership training for your staff and volunteers, but you should also keep your eyes open for influencers who arise through other means. Paul’s leadership pipeline was the Damascus Road, after all, not the Jerusalem church.

Second, share the work of ministry with others. Too often, we speak of what Pastor So-and-so accomplished at Such-and-such Church, as if he or she accomplished everything alone. But as Paul put it, the congregation is a body in which every member must do its part. So, share the work and spread the credit around.

Third, tend to your soul. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Paul wrote, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” People will follow your leadership if you personally embody the joy and life-changing power of the gospel. Who you are as a leader is as important as what you do, in other words, because who you are as a spiritual leader symbolizes the life of meaning and eternal significance that people aspire to in Christ.

Fourth, and finally, use your leadership for good. Both Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. were Christians. And yet, at the height of their leadership, separated by a century, they exerted influence to achieve morally contradictory goals — Lee in defense of white supremacy and King in defense of racial equality. At the end of the day, however one defines leadership, shouldn’t doing the right thing be the most basic test of our leadership?

Book Reviewed
Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone, Leaders: Myth and Reality (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History | Book Review


After Charlottesville, I have spent a fair bit of time on Facebook arguing about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. My position is that the Confederacy was incorrigibly racist, that it started the war to defend slavery, and that its “heroes” should not be given statues because they were traitors. I am a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, so my opposition to Confederate statues comes from the Right, not the Left, which always seems to catch people off guard.

I mention this because I have been surpised by the defense of Confederate statues by my fellow conservatives and Christians. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to disappoint me. Most of them defend these statues on slippery-slope grounds—e.g., if Lee today, then why not Washington and Jefferson tomorrow? They worry that taking down statues equates to erasing history. But as the conversation continues, someone else will join in with a rosy view of the Confederacy as a redoubt of state’s rights and small government in which slavery was an unfortunate but historically ancillary problem. (Talk about the erasure of history!)

Historians term this point of view the myth of Lost Cause. It is an interpretation of the war that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat in order to explain away that defeat away while simultaneously justifying the antebellum South’s way of life. It is a tendentious way of reading history, one that downplays the central role of slavery in both secession and the Confederacy, and romanticizes the valor of the Southern warfighter, who fell victim to the superior manpower and materiel—though not martial skill—of Northern forces.

Unfortunately, writes Alan T. Nolan in his sketch of the Lost Cause interpretation, “The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.” The goal of this volume, as the editors put it, is “to build on previous literature by engaging various aspects of the white South’s response to defeat, efforts to create a suitable memory of the war, and uses of the Confederate past.”

Nine authors examine various topics. Alan T. Nolan describes the contours of the Lost Cause interpretation (Chapter One). Gary W. Gallagher highlights the crucial role of Jubal A. Early in promulgating the myth (Chapter Two), while Lesley J. Gordon does the same for LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the wife of Major General George Pickett of “Pickett’s Charge” fame (Chapter Eight).

Three authors examine how Lost Cause mythology was put to use in as many states: Charles J. Holden on South Carolina (Chapter Three), Keith S. Bohannon on Georgia (Chapter Four), and Peter S. Carmichael on Virginia (Chapter Five). Chapters Six by Jeffry D. Wert and Chapter Seven by Brooks D. Simpson examine how the Lost Cause interpreted the martial skill of James Longstreet and Ulysses S. Grant, leading Confederate and Union generals, respectively. Longstreet became the “Judas Iscariot” of the Confederacy, blamed for losing Gettysburg by Jubal A. Early, and reviled for working with Republicans during Reconstruction. Lost Cause historians gave (and give) Grant little credit as a leader for defeating Lee, attributing his success to his willingness to hammer Confederate forces into attrition by means of sheer numbers and mechanized weaponry. This allows Lost Cause historians to valorize—if not apotheosize—Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Finally, Chapter Nine by Lloyd A. Hunger looks at “Lost Cause Religion,” namely, the entanglement of Protestant religion with the Confederate cause, so that the symbols of one became symbols of the other. As an evangelical Christian and a minister of the gospel, I read this chapter in particular as a warning to the present of the way that the gospel can be used and abused in support of self-interested ideology.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History is an excellent book, but it is probably not the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Civil War history generally or Lost Cause mythology specifically. It assumes a lot of background knowledge, and its assortment of essays do not make for a unified look at the topic. Historian John Fea has put together a list of essential readings on the Lost Cause, and this book makes the list, however. For that reason, and because it was so informative, I nonetheless recommend it highly to anyone with a decent background knowledge of the issues.

 

Book Reviewed:
Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

The Myth of Robert E. Lee


Over at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer exposes what he calls “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.” It’s well worth reading. Here’s a sample:

The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

And…

Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statute to Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.

To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform.

Read the whole thing!

Review of ‘This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War’ by Bruce Catton


This-Hallowed-GroundBruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2012; repr. Doubleday, 1956). Paperback | Kindle

My wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary by touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Standing in the fields where soldiers fought and died gave me a tree-and-leaf view of the battles, but I felt lost in the details because I did not have a forest view of the war. Park rangers and tour guides recommended Bruce Catton’s books, so I went to Barnes & Noble and purchased This Hallowed Ground.

Originally subtitled, “The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War,” it has been reissued as part of the Vintage Civil War Library with a new subtitle: “A History of the Civil War.” Readers looking for a binocular view of the war should read Catton’s The Civil War in the American Heritage Books series. But if you want to understand the war from a Union viewpoint, this is your book. Catton writes with good pacing, telling detail, deep pathos, and sharp insight.

As an example of the latter—and as proof of Catton’s eloquence—let me quote two paragraphs describing Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant as they sat down to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Regarding Lee, Catton writes:

There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it seemed almost deliberately archaic, with an air of knee breeches and buckled shoes and powdered wigs, with a leisured dignity and a rigid code in which privilege and duty were closely joined. It had brought the country to its birth and it had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the eighteenth century could possibly have been carried forward into the future, this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. But from the day of its beginning America had been fated to be a land of unending change. The country in which this leisured class had its place was in powerful ferment, and the class itself had changed. It had been diluted. In the struggle for survival it had laid hands on the curious combination of modern machinery and slave labor, the old standards had been altered, dignity had begun to look like arrogance and pride of purse had begun to elbow out pride of breeding. The single lifetime of Robert E. Lee had seen the change, although Lee himself had not been touched by it.

With these words, Catton manages to shine a light on the virtues of Southern society (and of Lee particularly), while offering a penetrating critique of it at the same time.

Here’s what Catton writes about Grant by contrast:

The other man was wholly representative too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the founding fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. It had few standards beyond a basic unformulated belief in the irrepressibility and ultimate value of the human spirit, and it could tramp with heavy boots down a ravaged Shenandoah Valley or though the embers of a burned Columbia without giving more than casual thought to the things that were being destroyed. Yet it had its own nobility and its own standards; it had, in fact, the future of the race in its keeping, with all the immeasurable potential that might reside in a people who had decided that they would no longer be bound by the limitations of the past. It was rough and uncultivated and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.

Phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages of This Hallowed Ground are filled with observations like these. (Indeed, I found myself several times reading them aloud to my wife.) But in so describing Lee and Grant, Catton described America, whose Civil War was the end of one revolution and the beginning of another, whose final outcome is still being decided.

—–

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

 

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry


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On this day in history–October 16, 1859–John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His goal was to seize weapons and ammunition and arm slaves for a revolt against their slaveholders. Thirty-six hours after the raid began, troops led by Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the house where Brown and his men were holed up, captured them, and turned them over to Virginia authorities for trial. He was tried, sentenced to death for treason, and hanged on December 9.

When the Civil War began on 1861, Union soldiers sang “John Brown’s Body” (also known as “John Brown’s Song”) as they marched. And of course they were marching into battle against–appropriately enough–Robert E. Lee.

There are several versions of “John Brown’s Body,” which is sung to the same tune as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” For a history of the Brown song, see here.

Finally, here are the lyrics to the October 1859 version of the song by William Weston Patton:

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul’s marching on!
John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.
(Chorus)
He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened “Old Virginny” till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.
(Chorus)
John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.
(Chorus)
The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.
(Chorus)
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
(Chorus)

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