Book review: Leaders - Myth And Reality, by General Stanley McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal PIC: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
General Stanley McChrystal PIC: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
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Nelson Mandela once said he was no messiah, but rather “an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances”, and that very much ties in with the theories espoused in this compelling study of leadership, which underlines the pivotal role of context in the rise to power.

General Stanley McChrystal’s credentials to discuss the issue are impeccable. He retired as a four-star general after serving for 34 years in the US Army. His last assignment was commanding all US and international forces in Afghanistan. He is also co-founder of the leadership consulting firm, McChrystal Group.

He states in the prologue that he and his co-authors have experienced “successes, failures, lessons, and scar tissue from years of leading” and share a fascination with and passion for leadership – but also feel that more understanding is required.

The book mirrors Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in that each chapter profiles two leaders, opening with a brief introduction and ending with a comparison of the duo. However, where Plutarch chose 48 personalities, here is a baker’s dozen, split into six categories – founders, geniuses, zealots, heroes, power-brokers and reformers – plus a chapter dedicated to Confederate leader Robert E Lee. The list encompasses high-profile subjects from a variety of disciplines, including Martin Luther King Jr, Coco Chanel, Leonard Bernstein, Margaret Thatcher and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

The biographies are engrossing, with compelling, detail-rich anecdotes that vividly bring the characters off the page, from Bernstein’s foot-stomping conducting style to Chanel spraying perfume in a Cannes restaurant to pique interest in her product.

The inclusion of photos and paintings enhances the storytelling, even if the charisma of such images threatens to distract from the book’s central tenet that circumstances create leadership as much as personal qualities.

As well as examining various origins, styles and outcomes of leadership, Leaders also serves as a fascinating history lesson, taking the reader on an almost Forrest Gump-esque tour through pivotal historic events. The understandable difficulty in narrowing down the core list from hundreds is highlighted, and yet you feel the aim of presenting a diverse representation has been achieved.

Indeed, like Plutarch’s Lives, the book includes characters who aren’t necessarily heroes, instead seeing the need to learn from a range of people.

Leaders may offer a surfeit of detail on some of the lesser-known characters that will annoy some, but all in all this is an engaging, highly readable work.

Leaders - Myth And Reality, By General Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone, Portfolio Penguin, £14.99