Leadership: 3 Myths and 1 New Definition

Book review and summary of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's Leaders: Myth and Reality

Reading the Lives of Plutarch, the namesake of this newsletter, was a common practice among aspiring leaders throughout history. Catherine the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and Theodore Roosevelt were just a handful of profiles I covered who savoured Plutarch’s Lives. While Lives has, at present, become more and more a subject of history and Latin students, we carry on the practice by studying biographies written by contemporary scholars of great men and women in search for advice, wisdom, and inspiration on leadership. And some have gone too far in this search.

For example, Boris Johnson, the most likely resident of 10 Downing Street, has often gone wild with his obsession for Winston Churchill. While his book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, is entertaining to some, it lacks the rigor of a historian and can at times feel as if it were more about Boris than Winston. For Johnson, Churchill single-handedly stood in the way of dictatorship and safeguarded Western democracy. Nevermind the equally brilliant Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nevermind all the soldiers from all across the world who sacrificed their lives. For Boris Johnson, one great man can make history.

Summary of Leaders: Myth and Reality

Stanley McChrystal, a decorated four-star general and co-author of the best-selling Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, begs to differ with Johnson’s tunnel vision and great man theory. In his most recent book with two other associates, Leaders: Myth and Reality, McChrystal et al. laid out 3 myths about leadership, summarized 13 profiles, and offered a more complex and nuanced definition of leadership.

*Note: This is only an excerpt of my book summary. Read the full summary here.

3 Myths

McChrystal writes that most people think of leadership as the process of influencing a group toward some defined outcome, of one person herding the group toward goals, and of leaders at the top craft directing those endpoints. This kind of definition leads to three myths that hinder our understanding of effective leadership:

  • The Formulaic Myth: our desire to tame leadership into a static checklist, ignoring the reality that leadership is intensely contextual, dependent upon the particular circumstances, times, and places

  • The Attribution Myth: our tendency of having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves and of attributing too much of an outcome to leaders, neglecting the agency of the group surrounding the leaders. We are led to believe that leadership is what the leader does whereas, in reality, real agency of leadership is bound up by a system of followers.

  • The Results Myth: our false assumption that leadership is seen as the process of driving groups of people toward outcomes, and their objective results are more important than their style or words or appearance. In reality, leadership describes what leaders symbolize more than what they achieve.

For McChrystal et al., buying into the 3 myths means that our leadership models become far less effective, and we would construct elaborate processes to select, assess, and train leaders who perpetuate existing weaknesses which we otherwise could mitigate or eliminate.

Read more about the characters in the book, Leaders, here.

Why Great Man Theory Sticks

So why does the great man theory that Boris Johnson enjoys stick so well with us that we create these myths around leaders? McChrystal et al. offers three explanations:

  1. Humans are suckers for narrative drama. We’d rather learn about leadership from a colorful biography than from dry leadership analysis.

  2. The Great Man reflects our faith in individual free will. We hope that great men have intrinsic worth and are rational and free beings who can shape their own lives. But it also quickly translates into an exaggeration that individual leaders make things happen.

  3. We have a preference for simplicity. Boiling down complex situations into a small crew of prime actors is more relatable. Reductionist explanations are often more satisfying than nuanced but more accurate accounts.

A New Definition of Leadership

McChrystal et al. arrived at the new definition of leadership:

Leadership is a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.

This definition addresses the three myths:

  1. The Formulaic Myth: Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore cannot be boiled down to a formula but must be constantly modified.

  2. The Attribution Myth: Leadership is an emergent property of a complex system with feedback loops instead of a one-directional process driven by a leader.

  3. The Results Myth: The leader is vital for leadership, but more in the sense of symbolism, meaning, and purpose rather than the results they produce.

This new definition also addresses the followers on how to influence their leaders:

  1. Accept the leader’s fallibility and be aware of their limitations and our inflated expectations of their leadership, even if the leaders hold immense values as symbols of meaning.

  2. Practice reverse accountability, define the leader’s operating parameters and confine the leader’s style.


McChrystal et al.’s thesis in Leaders is both insightful and thought-provoking to my understanding of leadership, well worth every aspiring leader’s time to study and digest. However, in bringing in more of a scientific style of leadership analysis into the book, McChrystal et al.’s writing can appear dry at times, especially in their crafting of each individual biography for the 13 profiles. Alas, McChrystal et al. are aware that narrative drama tends to inflate individual importance over complex situations, but a book only sells well with plenty of entertainment. Balancing leadership studies and entertaining stories is a writer’s dilemma.

Read my verdict here.

Catherine the Great: A Life on Womanhood and Leadership

From primary school up to college, girls outperform boys academically. Then, upon entering the real world, they fall behind boys in the race to the top of the food chain due to a confidence gap: boys tend to be more confident than girls even when they are incompetent and unqualified; for girls, often over-competent and over-qualified, competence does not necessarily lead to confidence. Too commonly praised for being simply “good,” instead of being praised for their efforts, girls develop the perception that abilities are innate and unchangeable, and tend to give up more quickly when facing difficult tasks and grow up to be adults far too hard on themselves.

Boys are typically praised for breaking the rules. Just look at the popularity of Boris Johnson, the incompetent, lying, opportunistic candidate for 10 Downing Street who possesses an “I’ve got nothing” brain but wins voters repeatedly with his personality. In contrast, Theresa May, the ultimate political good girl, fought a losing battle surrounded by bad boys who put their personal interests ahead of their nation’s fate. May voted Remain, but nevertheless carried out the people’s will faithfully, even offering to sacrifice her own career. The bad boys, having broken too many rules, have lined up unscathed behind May to cash in on their own ambitions.

Our times are changing. Across the world we see a yearning and a resolve for women’s rights, for an future without discrimination or harrassment, and for an equality based on opportunity and competency. As we witness so many bad-boy shows in Britain, the United States (remember Trump?), and across the world, it is very timely to look at the life, career, and character of Catherine the Great, a German who seized the Russian throne in a coup d’etat and went on to become one of the longest ruling women in history, competing with outstanding peers such as Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa of Austria.

Having read Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great, I wrote this post as the first one focusing on a female leader in Plutarch. Is Catherine the Great a good girl, bad girl, or both? Can all of us, men and women, learn something valuable from her life?

Catherine the Good Girl

Catherine the Great was born as Sophia Friederike Auguste, daughter to Prince Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth von Holstein-Gottorp. Johanna, unsatisfied with the unpromising career of her husband (who was 22 years older than her) in the Prussian army and the life of the boring town of Stettin, always yearned for more. Marrying her daughter Sophia off to a prominent family was Johanna’s only chance to gain title and status. For Sophia, marrying herself off was also the only chance to be rid of her mother for Johanna disliked Sophia’s independent spirit, criticizing her lack of physical beauty by telling her how ugly and impertinent she was. Sophia obeyed Johanna silently and maintained respectful. She would later obey Elizabeth of Russia, even when court life became unbearable and when Elizabeth selfishly took away her newborn children from her.

The geopolitics of Sophia’s time somehow turned to her favor. Intending to secure neutrality of Elizabeth to continue fighting Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia (later the Great) managed to marry Sophia to Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter Ulrich, born and raised in Holstein (northern Germany) but transferred secretly to Russia as a teenager to become the heir to the Romanov throne. The good girl would obey Elizabeth and disappoint her own father by converting from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy and took a new name, Catherine (Yekaterina Alekseyevna). She also learned Russian diligently, knowing that one day she might co-rule the vast empire.

Fully aware of her lack of physical beauty, Catherine was determined “that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence.” With a habit for books, Catherine would become “the daughter of the Enlightenment” and cultivated a lifelong friendship with Diderot and Voltaire, two of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. Once in power, she drafted a new legal code, Nakaz, based on Enlightenment principles, aiming to address inefficiency and corruption in government as well as transforming Russian society. For example, intellectually opposed to serfdom, she attempted to address this notorious form of slavery with the bad boys in her Legislative Commission, an initiative that was ahead her time. Catherine’s contemporary American leaders would own slaves while penning the line that “all men are created equal.”

Perhaps the most “good girl” behavior of Catherine was during the early years of her relationship with Peter Ulrich, the traumatized man-child who was underdeveloped both in body and mind. Despite being the heir to the Russian throne, he hated Russia, admired Prussia and Frederick the Great, and often dressing up in Prussian military uniform to provoke his aunt Elizabeth. (Once he hanged a rat in his room according to his imagined “laws of war”). He also never developed physical attraction to Catherine, courting instead her maids of honor in the court and openly flirted with the idea of being a cuckold. Therefore, Catherine arrived in St. Petersburg when she was 13 and remained a virgin long after her marriage to Peter. Because of Elizabeth’s frustration that an heir was not secured, the 25-year-old Catherine was forced by her governess to lose her virginity and engage in extramarital sex with Sergei Saltykov, a well-known playboy who taught Catherine the activities in bed and subsequently broke her heart when he pursued other women.

Catherine the Woman

But it would be too simplistic to imagine the young Catherine as solely a good girl, for she had already harbored great ambitions when she was betrothed to Peter. Despite all Peter’s flaws, young Sophia knew she wasn’t marrying a face but the heir of a vast empire. As she grew, she learned how to navigate among the power plays the royal circle, how to rally support from sympathizers, how to turn former enemies into allies, and how to manage the interests different groups that support her. Her allies proved instrumental in deposing Peter from his 6-month of chaotic rule as an emperor, pushing her to the peak of power. Subsequently, she skillfully surpassed her young son, Paul, to secure her own position as the empress instead of serving as a regent.

Once crowned, her rising status and power consolidation was accompanied by a more colorful love life. Not able to live a day without love, Catherine was a romantic who sought after not only physical pleasure but intelligent, loving companions. A late bloomer, she had a total of 12 lovers throughout her life, including Poniatowski, a future King of Poland, and Grigory Potemkin, the statesman whose achievements include the annexation of the Crimea and the victory of the Second Russo-Turkish War. Yet these love relationships sometimes reveal Catherine’s ruthlessness once in power: while deeply in love with Poniatowski as a young adult, Catherine would later coerce him and insert him as a puppet King to the Polish throne in order to reinforce Russia’s influence over Poland. In her later years, Catherine was known to be accompanied by a younger male lover, or a favorite, for the noble cause “that these young men were so extraordinary that she was obliged to give them opportunity to develop their talents”. 

A fan of the Enlightenment as a youthful lady, Catherine would eventually realize that the distance between “an Enlightenment philosopher’s definition of an ideal monarchy and the immediate problems of everyday life in rural Russia was simply too great.” In her attempt to address serfdom, Catherine wanted to break down the traditions, prejudices, and ignorance of both the serfs and the slave owners. She knew that if the cruelty and intolerable human conditions of serfs were not lessened, one day the serfs would rise up against the wealthy. A “good girl,” like Theresa May, would pursue only what was “right,” regardless of the consequences. Yet not such a simple-minded person, Catherine learned to compromise intellectual ideals and the balance of power: it was the landowning nobility who put her to power and she could only reward them with wealth, which meant serfs. Morally troublesome, but politically pragmatic. Alas, it would be too easy for later generations to criticise her in hindsight.

Catherine would become convinced that the Enlightenment could not be bestowed on an empire of illiterates until its people had been prepared for it by education, so she favored absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in Russia. Having taken the Russian throne in a coup d’etat and being blamed for the murder of Peter, Catherine was also concerned about opposition, conspiracy, and rebellion. She would crack down Pugachev’s Rebellion, the largest peasant revolt in Russian and very much a class war, without offering any reforms for the peasants. Amid the French Revolution, which would eventually led to the death of Louis XVI and The Terror, and two simultaneous wars with the Turks and Sweden, Catherine also censored books, such as Radishchev’s book criticising serfdom in 1790 (she wrote that the book “could not be tolerated”). But if liberal no more, Catherine at least showed Enlightenment values in her crackdowns and censorship. She showed humanity to her enemy and refrained from torturing Pugachev, the leader of the peasant rebellion. She would also commute Radishchev’s death sentence to a 10-year sentence to Siberia.

One of her major achievements as the empress was the acquisition and expansion of Russian territory. Not only did Catherine orchestrated all three Polish partitions, but she also successfully campaign against the Ottoman Empire in two Russo-Turkish Wars, winning the annexation of the Crimean peninsula with an access to the Black Sea. If not a Romanov by blood, Catherine was indeed the heir carrying the mantle of Peter the Great. But it was not just in war that she excelled. With a strong hand, her health policy changed Russia for the better, especially with regards to smallpox, for by 1780, 18 years into her reign, Catherine had inoculated 2 million Russians against smallpox. In her own words, Catherine was also an art “glutton” who brought Western art and culture to Russia and an “alcoholic” builder who erected monuments and castles. A patron for arts, literature, and education, Catherine sent Russians abroad for studies and sowed the seed for the rise of artists and writers like Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy.

New Catherines Arising

So what is Catherine the Great, and how can leaders today learn from her? Should female leaders be good girls or bad girls? That is perhaps the wrong way to look at the problem. A bad girl would never rise to the top in our contemporary society due to gender prejudice and bias. A good girl like Theresa May would not be able to handle the complex problems which require more fox-like rather than tortoise-like attitude. What Catherine the Great illustrates is that any leader can hold certain fundamental values at heart while learning to adapt to their present situation, solving problems not by an absolute set of black-and-white ideological beliefs, but rather with dexterity, flexibility, and pragmatism. Real progress that benefit us never come overnight and can only be achieved with patience and planning.

Despite being born a German, Catherine the Great saw herself as a true Russian. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian leaders ever to govern that vast land. Yet history has its dark humors and whims, because Catherine’s successor, Paul, who had a strained relationship with his mother, made sure that Russia would not take a female leader ever again. From then on until the death of Nicholas II, Russia would only be ruled by Romanov men, not any German (or Danish) princesses. The Bolsheviks came, the communists failed, yet Russian has not seen a female leader on its top leadership position ever since.

If Russia has become a barren land for female leaders since Catherine, Germany, her homeland, has flourished with female leaders. Angela Merkel is the longest serving female chancellor in Germany. Ursula von der Leyen has been proposed by the European Council as the President to the European Commission. And it is not just in Germany but across Europe where female leaders have arisen. For instance, there is the well-respected Margrethe Vestager, who has been leading the European Commission for Competition, Mette Frederiksen, the new Prime Minister of Denmark, and Christine Lagarde, who will run the European Central Bank. While the Economist shows that Europe is a long way from gender equal representation in politics, we should be proud of the progress made and look ahead with optimism and determination to further improve equal rights and opportunities for everyone.

There will be more Catherine the Greats in Europe, perhaps even ones who are known not for being good girls but for breaking conventional rules. But like Catherine, who waited two decades to lead her country, these future women leaders might not climb to the top overnight. We must change it with a lotta good heart, a lotta patience, and a bit of pragmatism.

5 Lessons from LBJ on Leadership

A case study from Johnson's years as the Texas State director of the National Youth Administration

If you have read my review on Robert Caro’s Working, you know that Caro’s four-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson is on my reading list. My friend Moritz, who is ahead in reading the LBJ quadrilogy, recommended me to study Chapter 19 (“Put them to work!”) of The Path to Power, which examined LBJ’s leadership during 1935-1937 as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration (NYA).

Having read through the chapter, this week’s newsletter contains 5 lessons on young LBJ’s leadership. LBJ was a highly effective, complex, and controversial leader of his time and we will revisit Caro’s books for more studies on his character. But it is also important to remember that times have changed and so have social norms. What was outstanding leadership traits might be subjected to moral judgements today.

5 Lessons from Young LBJ on Leadership

The disastrous economic impact of the Great Depression in 1929 is unmatched by all the booms and busts in the past 90 years. Six years after the Great Depression, numerous men and women grew up lacking education and any opportunity to work. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said “I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation.”

Under her initiative, the NYA was established in 1935 to educate this lost generation and put them to work. Lyndon B. Johnson, only 26 years old, became the Texas NYA director. As the youngest of the forty-eight NYA directors, Johnson was responsible for then the largest state in the USA. “Every attempt to establish a statewide public works program in Texas had been hamstrung by the variations in climatic, cultural, social and economic conditions in a state 800 miles from top to bottom, and almost 800 miles wide,” more than the combined size of 11 northeastern states.

Lyndon Johnson’s only experience with public works had been his job on a Highway Department road gang in Johnson City. Now he had to create—create out of nothing—a public works program huge in size and statewide in scope. And once it was created, he had to direct it—to manage it, to administer it. His only administrative experience was his work as Kleberg’s secretary.

Yet by the time Johnson became a congressman in 1937, the Texas NYA was seen as a successful program nationwide. How did this 26-year-old youth pulled it off?

1. Be a persuasive salesman

Among the most essential qualities of leadership, the power of persuasion ranks top. A leader needs a team of competent players who buy into the vision. The leader must be able to sell and persuade highly qualified followers to join their mission. One of the first recruits to Johnson’s team at Texas NYA, Willard Deason, recalled:

“[Johnson] was the greatest salesman I’ve ever seen. He would say, ‘Now, I’ve got a mission to do, and the money to do it with. Now you’ve got to get us a worthwhile program.’”

Despite a promising law career at a bank, Deason was persuaded by Johnson to take a 2-week vacation from his well-paid job to help out Texas NYA. During those 2 weeks, Johnson convinced him to take a 6-month leave from work, after which Deason left his job permanently for Texas NYA.

Johnson pulled off the same trick on another acquaintance, Jesse Kellam. Kellam had tasted the hardship during the Great Depression and had zero intention to leave his well-paid job as State Director of Rural Aid. But Johnson persuaded him to take a 2-week off, then another 2 weeks, and then Kellam also left his state job for this new one that paid less than half as much!

2. Build a strong (tight-knit) team

A leader could choose a highly heterogeneous or homogeneous team. Lincoln chose a team of rivals for his cabinet, wanting only the best men in the country. Managing first-rate politicians like William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edwin Stanton, each with their personal political ambitions, was challenging and even risky. However, when managed, as in Lincoln’s case, they form a powerful force that can lead a nation out of political crises and warfares.

In contrast, Johnson demanded absolute “loyalty” in the form of unquestioning obedience from his subordinates. The type of team members he was looking for were not only willing but eager to take orders and bow to his will. Not surprisingly, his NYA team shared two traits: like himself, most of them had gone to the Southwest Texas State Normal School at San Marcos; second, most of them were in their twenties.

Johnson’s new recruits would then go through a “sifting out” phase full of long hours of work, which rid Johnson’s team of those who did not fit into his team. “The ‘sifting out’ left him with a cadre of men—perhaps forty in number—proven in his service, instruments fitted to his hand.” Johnson made those who survived feel almost like part of a family and they wanted so badly to stay on Johnson’s team.

Observers at the time noted that they seemed to like calling Johnson “Chief” and being called “son” by him. If a sycophant culture had corrupted and ruined from inside Hitler’s inner circle outward to his Third Reich, it somehow suited Johnson perfectly. Johnson had a knack for choosing his loyal followers:

“His selections—men like Kellam, Deason, Roth and Birdwell—proved, every one, to be men who were not only willing to work all day, every day, but who were also willing to take orders, and curses, without resentment; to be humiliated in front of friends and fellow workers; to see their opinions and suggestions given short shrift.”

This battle-tested, tight-knit group of Texas NYA would become a base of political power to the future Senator Johnson in the coming decades.

3. Drive (or Lead) people with energy

Those who have read Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk or Brad Stone’s The Everything Store might be familiar with Musk’s belief that one must work 80-100 hours a week in order to change the world or how Bezos drove his employees hard at work with explosive curses. Johnson was known for his energy, quick mind, and the will to get things done. He was a workaholic. There was no work hours or weekend in team Johnson and he did not want his staff to stop working.

To control the men and to drive them to be more productive, Johnson would utilize competition to make employees work faster. He grouped them in pairs, constantly telling each one that they were slower than some other people. It was not a game that anyone could win. A staff commented that “I don’t care how hard I worked. I was always behind.” Donald Trump Jr. resembles Johnson in this respect as he is known for the same tactic, believing that it would create a winner (and a loser to be dusted out).

If Johnson drove his people hard, he also led them. Morgan recalled: “That’s the kind of assignments he’d give you—that would seem nearly impossible. But he taught you you could do them.” Caro observes that:

“Cursing his men one moment, he removed the curse the next—with hugs and with compliments, compliments which, if infrequent, were as extravagant as the curses: remarks that a man repeated to his wife that night with pride, and that he never forgot. He made them feel needed.”

4. Leverage Machiavellian manipulations

If Machiavelli’s The Prince is, with the pragmatic or even cynical statement that rulers are better off being feared than loved, the holy grail for pragmatic and cunning leaders, then Johnson is the embodiment of this Machiavellian spirit. He would curse and dominate people with cruelty. Sherman Birdwell, who knew Johnson since boyhood, said that “God, he could rip a man up and down.” According to Caro, Johnson has a “gift for finding a man’s most sensitive point was supplemented by a willingness—eagerness, almost—to hammer at that point without mercy.”

Besides fear, he also deployed gratitude as a tool. The Depression hit the entire nation hard, especially so in the Hill Country. Ernest Morgan, for example, could only earned 20 dollars a month with nine hours of work a day and six days a week. After working part-time with Lyndon Johnson, he was earning 65 dollars per month! Imagine how grateful he was. For many at Texas NYA, the gratitude was compounded with fear, as this job was the only way out for most of them. Johnson never let his team forget that he was the one who offered them the way out of their poverty.

Driven by Johnson’s desire to dominate other people, he had mastered, at 26, the art of manipulation to gave each one of his staff a “precisely measured dosage of cursing, of sarcasm, of hugging, of compliments: of exactly what was needed to keep them devoted to his aims.

5. Inspire with vision, align your mission with their ambitions

Aside from the Machiavellian fear and gratitude he inserted into each man and woman on his team, Johnson managed to inspire people and to align their self-interest with their allegiance to him. Johnson knew how to play on their personal aspirations. “They believed that—believed that when he had better jobs to give out, they would get them.” They were all convinced that Johnson was going places and idolized him. If Johnson’s mission was successful, their ambitions would be fulfilled as well.

On top of that came a vision and a historical sense because Johnson “made them feel like part of history, too...he put them into perspective, an inspiring perspective, explaining how the NYA was trying to salvage the lives of young men and women who were walking the streets or riding the rails in despair, who were cold and hungry.” Most of his men and women found it impossible to resist Johnson’s spell and they could not be around Johnson without falling under his influence.

“First he fills himself up with knowledge, and then he pours out enthusiasm around him, and you can’t stop him. I mean, there’s no way….He just overwhelms you.”

One of Johnson’s staff, Chuck Henderson, would write to his fiancé, Mary, that “I’m working for the greatest guy in the world. Someday he’s going to be President of the United States. And he’s only twenty-seven years old!”

Verdict: a Reader of Men, a Master of Men

The NYA was a political exercise that allowed Johnson to bring people together under his leadership so that he could observe and test them, assessing not only their personalities but their potentialities. It also served as a political machine that would later help Johnson control Texas.

If contemporaries were somewhat disgusted by LBJ’s manipulative traits, his contemporaries had better things to say. Mary Henderson’s memories of Johnson serves as a powerful summary of his leadership during 1935-1837 at Texas NYA:

“But he had what they call now a charisma. He was dynamic, and he had this piercing look, and he knew exactly where he was going, and what he was going to do next, and he had you sold down the river on whatever he was telling you. And you had no doubts that he was going to do what he said—no doubts at all. You never thought of him being only twenty-seven years old. You thought of him like a big figure in history. You felt the power. If he’d pat you on the back, you’d feel so honored. People worked so hard for him because you absolutely adored him. You loved him.”

Leadership has been and will always be a tricky business. Leaders have different upbringings and motivations for power, and followers have their own ambitions and agenda. To make a group of people work and change things, there will always be truthful persuasions bordering on blatant lies, sincere intentions mixed with Machiavellian manipulations, the struggle to balance a meritocratic team and the vane human desire for sycophantic praises, and confusing self-driven work with abusive labor exploitation. These tensions are especially pronounced in Caro’s study of LBJ.

It is important for us to keep other contemporary or historical leaders in mind when studying LBJ’s leadership. In Chinese, there is a saying “八仙过海, 各显神通,” which, after losing all its original beauty, roughly translates into that we each have our unique advantages and specialties on our path to greatness. Some of LBJ’s greatest skills were secrets, lies, manipulations, and a fox-like ease to switch side. But many of us would not wish to lead like LBJ. Luckily we don’t necessarily have to.

LBJ has much to offer in our pursuit of great leadership. Some we must learn to excel. Others we must learn to eschew.

Your setbacks in life are paving the way to future progress

Lincoln's disappointing setbacks in 1855 contributed to his presidency

“I have these terrible voices in my mind,” Junayd, a friend of mine, told me over dinner almost a year ago when he was going through a challenging time. As empathetic as I was in hearing out his struggles, I experienced a strange relief that I was not alone in erupting terrible and despicable ideas.

Just this past Friday, I felt so agonizingly demotivated and frustrated, as if everything in the world was against me. And it happens often. Sometimes they are triggered by tiny unfulfilled wishes and unsatisfied ephemeral lusts, other times they are awaken by hard work not recognized, talent not acknowledged, jealousy of others’ skills, status, and virtues, and ambitions too grand to be achieved.

Besides influences from experiences in my childhood, the cause of this mental state is a sense of a lack of progress in life. It’s the disillusioned assumption that a career is not moving anywhere, the hopeless feeling of not having someone to love, or the bitter frustration over a goal nowhere within reach. When I was younger, this lack of progress and the ensuing loss of motivation would always sink me into despair, impatience, and unwise decisions. But then, I learned think about Abraham Lincoln in 1855 whenever there was no visible progress.

Lincoln’s Year of Frustrations

1855 was but a brief period in Lincoln’s 56 years of life, summed up in a little over 10 pages in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 916-page Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Yet these were no small setbacks for a 46-year-old lawyer who had, by the life expectancy of his time and his age, already spent 2/3 of his ambitious life with little accomplishment outside of Illinois. In contrast, many of his future Cabinet members, most notably William Seward and Salmon Chase, had already risen to national prominence.

Senate Election: 47 lost to 5

The election held by the Illinois state legislature in February saw two main candidates for the Senate seat, Lincoln, with 47 votes from the anti-slavery Whigs, and James Shields, with 41 votes from the pro-Nebraska Democrats (a.k.a. Douglas Democrats after Lincoln’s rival Stephen Douglas). A majority of 51 votes was needed to win the seat and, unfortunately, a small group of 5 anti-Nebraska (anti-slavery) Democrats, led by Norman Judd, was determined to vote a third Democratic candidate, Lyman Trumbull, instead of Lincoln.

During the election, the Douglass Democrats cunningly switched support from James Shields to the widely popular Democratic governor Joel Matteson, aiming to secure the votes of the anti-slavery Democrats. After 9 ballots, Lincoln could not gather a majority and realized that he must gave up his candidacy in favor of Trumbull to prevent the Douglas Democrats from winning. Therefore, Lincoln ordered his 47 men to be controlled by Trumbull’s 5, giving Trumbull the majority to win the Senate seat.

Many of Lincoln’s friends were inconsolable, believing that this was “perhaps his last chance for that high position”. Kearns Goodwin wrote:

Despite the dignity of Lincoln’s public demeanor, he privately suffered a brutal disappointment, describing the ordeal as an “agony.” Though he had engineered Trumbull’s victory for the sake of the anti-Nebraska cause, it was difficult to accept the manner of his loss.

Law Practice: The Ape from the Countryside

Later in the summer, Lincoln was involved in McCormick v. Manny, a celebrated intellectual patent lawsuit of the time. Because the case was to be tried in Chicago Illinois, George Harding, the nationally renowned patent lawyer representing the defendant, reached out to Lincoln via his associate Peter Watson as his local partner who “understood the judge and had his confidence”. Soon after, the case was transferred to Cincinnati Ohio, so Harding teamed up with an outstanding Ohioan lawyer Edwin Stanton, failing to inform Lincoln of the change.

Having done his work, Lincoln arrived at the Burnet House in Cincinnati, where the lawyers were lodged, only to be humiliated by his colleagues:

Years later, Harding could still recall the shock of his first sight of the “tall, rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles, holding in his hands a blue cotton umbrella with a ball on the end of the handle.” Lincoln introduced himself and proposed, “Let’s go up in a gang.” At this point, Stanton drew Harding aside and whispered, “Why did you bring that damned long armed Ape here…he does not know any thing and can do you no good.” With that, Stanton and Harding turned from Lincoln and continued to court on their own.

Stanton made sure that Lincoln was to remove himself from the case and Harding never opened the documents Lincoln prepared, “so sure that it would be only trash.” Instead of drowning himself in anger by such humiliating treatment, Lincoln stayed for the trial and “stood in ‘rapt attention…drinking in [Stanton’s] words,’” finding his sophisticated arguments “a revelation.” Never had Lincoln “seen anything so finished and elaborated, and so thoroughly prepared,” and he told a friend after the hearing that he’d go home and study law because he needed to be ready when these college-trained lawyers come West to Illinois.

Despite reciprocating the humiliations from Harding and Stanton with grace, Lincoln was nevertheless deeply affected by this event, telling a friend that “I never expect to be in Cincinnati again. I have nothing against the city, but things have so happened here as to make it undesirable for me ever to return here.”

The Story Continued

Except for Mary Todd Lincoln, who had an unwavering faith in Lincoln’s abilities, it was probably impossible for anyone to tell that this man would one day become the greatest of all U.S. presidents.

Indeed, Lincoln would be passed as a vice president candidate by the newly-founded Republican party in the 1856 Presidential Election. In 1858, he would enter a senate race against his long-standing rival Stephen Douglas and lost the campaign again. An average person would have given up after so many failures and humiliations, yet Lincoln carried on. The 1856 campaign made him the leading Republican in the state of Illinois and the 1858 senate campaign featured the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates, elevating him to the national level and making him a viable presidential candidate for the 1860 election.

And what happened to those anti-Nebraska Democrats who stood in Lincoln’s path to the U.S. Senate?

Neither Trumbull nor Judd would ever forget Lincoln’s generous behavior. Indeed, both men would assist him in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and Judd would play a critical role in his run for the presidency in 1860.

What happened to the Edwin Stanton that so humiliated Lincoln?

Unimaginable as it might seem, after Stanton’s bearish behavior, at their next encounter six years later, Lincoln would offer Stanton “the most powerful civilian post within his gift”—the post of secretary of war. Lincoln’s choice of Stanton would reveal, as would his subsequent dealings with Trumbull and Judd, a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. As for Stanton, despite his initial contempt for the “long armed Ape,” he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family.

La Fin

Every time I read these 10 pages of Lincoln’s disappointing 1855, I would close the book, overwhelmed by tears, and think of his extraordinary qualities in the face of personal setbacks. A power-hungry person would not have seen the larger picture and give up their best chance to advance their career. An average 46-year-old would soon reach the complacent state of their career trajectory, relying mostly on past experiences than on continuous learning. Not Lincoln. Having a moral compass in mind, he gave up all his votes to send the second best candidate into the Senate. Seeing the gap between his and Stanton’s law practices, his reaction was not jealousy or despair but the will to learn and improve.

One would find that Lincoln’s life before his presidency was filled with failures. Yet each time he slid down the mountain, he climbed back up again. He climbed slowly but each time brought him closer to the peak. Reading Lincoln gives me consolation in knowing that a lack of visible progress does not mean there is no progress. Progress does not just come from successes but also from failures and setbacks. Failures give us time to think, to rest, and to find a better route forward. Failures test and strengthen our characters. Failures pave the way for real, concrete progress in our lives.

It might take me a long time before I could truly eradicate my “terrible voices,” but with Lincoln in my mind, I have a role model to remind myself of taking on setbacks and failures with a little grace and dignity. So my friends, whenever you feel despair or impatient, try thinking about Lincoln in 1855. There can be progress in setbacks.

It's not the turtlenecks, silly!

3 rule of thumbs for learning leadership from history and biographies

Dear friends,

If you google either Elizabeth Holmes or the billion-dollar startup Theranos that no longer exists, chances are that the first image that pops up will display Holmes in the exact same black turtleneck that Steve Jobs used to wear. There is one passage that I remember in John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, a vivid account of Holmes and the infamous fraud Theranos:

A month or two after [Steve] Jobs’s death, some of Greg’s colleagues in the engineering department began to notice that Elizabeth [Holmes] was borrowing behaviors and management techniques described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple founder. They were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating.

Yet if Holmes were lucky enough to be remembered by history, it would not be as a visionary technologist who took up and furthered the mantle of Jobs; rather, it would be the frauds, hidden secrets, bad leadership, toxic company culture, and, on top of that, the death of of a renowned biochemist.

Holmes is not alone in her ambition to emulate and surpass famous leaders. Many of us learn from history, biographies, and contemporary leaders. Some admire and idolize a historical figure so much that they’d imitate the person’s eccentricities. And sometimes, like Holmes, we forget that it is not Issey Miyake’s turtleneck that made Jobs the visionary leader, but Jobs who made Miyake’s turtleneck famous.

Since we often mistake eccentricities for key traits of success, here are three rule of thumbs for how to learn from history and biographies. Comment below to let me know what you think!

1. Useful traits require meaningful efforts

If an observed characteristic does not require meaningful efforts to obtain, then it is probably irrelevant to the success of the observed person.

Lincoln’s story-telling skills did not come easily. His perpetual supply of stories that “helped many times to heal wounded feelings and mitigate disappointments” and his ability to offer “a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few, if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed” took an entire childhood of practices.

But a “Bezos Nutter”, a trademark of Bezos shouting at an employee with a humiliating line like “Why are you wasting my life?” (frequently found in Brad Stone’s The Everything Store) should not imply that impatience and impoliteness make a great boss. It simply means that Bezos is a flawed leader and that it does not require any effort to lose your temper and lash out at your people with verbal abuses.

Similarly, the “extraordinary” work ethics exhibited in Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk, such as an employee’s comment that “[he]’s been working sixteen hours a day every day for years. He gets more done than eleven people working together”, might simply imply that many of these hours were spent meaninglessly. Even if Musk can work 16 hours nonstop, we mundane humans most likely will not work efficiently for long stretches of hours (Not to mention that Musk can pay the health bills which we can’t afford).

As Talent is Overrated argues, traits require meaningful, deliberate practices to develop, not meaningless hours of pretence of great work ethics or useless personality flaws.

2. Choose role models with enough exposure

Learn from people who have exposed themselves long enough in the world of randomness.

The concept behind this rule is ergodicity, which Nassim N. Taleb explained in Fooled by Randomness. The gist is that those who were unlucky in life in spite of their skills and virtues would eventually rise out of the random noises that come in their paths.

I admit that this rule is slightly biased in that it favors people who have lived a long lifespan and those who are dead already. For just like Solon’s warning to Croesus in Herodotus’ The Histories, how would we know if a person is truly a great leader until they have passed away? Moreover, this rule favors those who have either surmounted the obstacles of social mobility or have experienced many twists and setbacks that Lady Fortuna has mischievously placed in their journeys.

Therefore, my personal preference goes for those like Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson among the self-made men, and Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelts among those among the patricians. It is not one of their achievements or one period of their lives that I judge, but rather their numerous battle-tested efforts and performance across a long lifespan. In contrast, those I have gradually learned not to enthusiastically endorse are the many who are still alive but have not yet proved their ability to shine through the course of time, such as the Silicon Valley/Seattle riches like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and young idealists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (We can still learn from them but should assume that their lives are still full of noises).

3. Traits only get you to the casino table

Emulating the good qualities and traits of successful leaders isn’t a guarantee of greatness, but only gets us to the casino table.

In this sense, a great trait, such as Theodore Roosevelt’s iron-like determination of self-creation or Lyndon B. Johnson’s masterful vote-counting ability, can get you to the casino and might even give you an edge in winning the Russian roulette, but they alone can never guarantee greatness. After all, Lady Fortuna has her favorite children but the caveat is that she often picks them randomly.

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s camp was filled with smart young officers, the most outstanding of which included Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, and John Laurens. These three young men, all in their early twenties, admired and loved each other for their talents and virtues. Contemporaries of theirs would assume that all three of them would have a bright future in the new republic. Except John Laurens was shot during the Battle of the Combahee River that took place just a few months before the peace agreement was signed. He died literally as one of the last casualties in an eight-year warfare. All three were hard-working, courageous, and intelligent, yet only Hamilton and Lafayette had the chance to prove their leadership later in life.

As pessimistic as it might sound, we should still try to aim for greatness. Without meaningful efforts to emulate great leaders, we will definitely not get the ticket to the casino to try out our “luck”. Fortune favors those who are prepared and if we keep trying to learn meaningful traits from other wise and great humans, at least we are very likely to improve our life quality and will not regret that we never tried.

Should this be somewhat gloomy to you, I’d recommend Charlie Munger’s saying that is both hopeful and wise:

“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day if you live long enough-like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.”

La Fin

It turns out that the turtleneck episode is not alone in our culture. Last year, Levi’s reproduced the iconic Menlo Cossack jacket worn by the physicist Albert Einstein, retailing at $1,200 in limited edition. Each jacket is accompanied by a bottle of scent of Einstein’s original jacket: “a warm blend of burley pipe tobacco, papyrus manuscripts and vintage leather”. Sadly, owning one won’t make us smarter but merely creates the illusion that we share something that the great man had—an overpriced jacket.

Superfluous characters that require no effort or eccentric behaviors that live on meaningless efforts are more useless than an Einstein jacket. Even worse, they might cost you more than $1,200.

Better to stick with three rule of thumbs. Who knows, maybe Lady Fortuna will knock on your door.

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