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February 2013


Thinking about Leadership


by Nannerl O. Keohane (Princeton University Press, 2010)


What are the big take-aways?


This is essentially a survey of the political philosophy of leadership, offered through the dual lenses of Keohane’s professional background as a political scientist and her personal experiences as a leader.  Keohane was the president of Wellesley College from 1981 to 1993, and the president of Duke University from 1993 to 2004.  Her orientation to leadership is both academic and practical, and draws more heavily from social science, political philosophy and history than – for example – the studies of psychology or organizational development.


By Keohane’s definition, “[l]eaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals” (p. 23).  The thrust of the book is a sustained exploration of what traits leaders must possess and what dynamics or processes leaders must utilize (or avoid) in order to manifest this definition.  The author also devotes a chapter each to three specific inquiries: whether gender makes a difference, how leadership works in a democracy, and the relationship between ethics and leadership.  Keohane draws few definitive conclusions in the book, but she masterfully shapes the contours of these debates by asking and addressing provocative questions.


Why did I like it?


While there are other enlightening works about the politics of leadership in American higher education, including inspiring pieces written by women, this book is unique in its comprehensive approach to the topic from one individual’s perspective as both a political philosopher and a woman occupying the top executive role at two elite institutions across three decades.


What I like most about Thinking about Leadership is the richness of Keohane’s academic perspective and how she draws on a wide range of sources and examples (some of her most-cited philosophers are Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Max Weber; some of the leaders she most frequently highlights are Queen Elizabeth I, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela.)  The book is grounded just enough in Keohane’s personal experiences that the “story” of her “thinking about leadership” remains real and accessible.


In what situations would this be useful?


This book would appeal to the academically-inclined leader who has a keen interest in history.  For aspiring or new leaders in higher education settings (or any large nongovernmental or public institutions) Thinking about Leadership would provide a useful overview of what leaders are, what they do, what “governance” is, and how leaders use power and relate to people.  It also includes instructive examples of the ways in which Keohane – a very deliberate leader – identified pitfalls and handled a few sticky situations.  That said, Thinking about Leadership is not a “how-to” book and would not take the place of the many other excellent resources that offer specific pragmatic tips and strategies for successfully transitioning from a second-tier position to a CEO role.


A note about timing.  As this book was published in 2010, its completion predates the coalescence of the so-called Arab Spring and also the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These two collective-action examples may have challenged various theories I interpreted Keohane as having relied upon to make certain points about leaders, followers, power, influence, and the role of leadership in a democracy.  I finished the book feeling curious about whether and how these emergent forms of event-making would have affected Keohane’s inquiries.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


First, I would refer you to Thinking about Leadership’s impressive bibliography for possible pairings, especially for works of political and social science, history and biography that would flesh out the many tantalizing references Keohane chooses to touch upon throughout her ruminations.


For more on the psychological – rather than social and political – history of defining leaders and leadership, I recommend checking out “authentic leadership” theory (including by thought leaders such as Warren Bennis and Bill George, and by academics such as Bruce Avolio and his collaborators), as well as contemporary resources in the burgeoning realm of adult development approaches to leadership (such as Robert Kegan, Bill Torbert, and Suzanne Cook-Greuter).


For more on women and leadership, I recommend the March 2012 blog post on the Harvard Business Review website by Zenger and Folkman posing the question, “Are women better leaders than men?” and also last summer’s Atlantic article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).


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