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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #7: Certain Trumpets

President Trump appears in the less-heralded companion volume, Uncertain Slide Whistles

I've always been a student of leadership. At times I've gone so far as to consider myself a teacher of the skill. And make no mistake - leadership is a skill set that can be acquired, not an inborn trait. And leadership is also not a single static concept, but rather a spectrum of abilities and choices that vary across individuals and situations. Too often we consider the great man on the hill, pointing in a direction with such certitude and virtue and speaking of his vision with such compelling rhetoric that we masses have no choice but to follow. That's one form of leadership, but only one, and rarely the most effective or desirable.

One of the reasons I delight in Garry Wills' work "Certain Trumpets" is that he explores in depth this concept of various leadership styles or types. Veterans of the RYLA program from 15 years ago or so will recall being given a copy of this book after their work on staff, and there's a reason Lionel Ingram and I were - and remain - devotees of the volume. It hammers home the idea that there are different expressions of leadership, and that everyone has some capacity to lead given the demands of the situation. Our job at RYLA was to help participants identify their own styles and their own skills, and to work with individual proto-leaders on their own distinct pathways to becoming more effective. I think we did a pretty good job of it - the program itself is closing in on three decades of churning out young leaders of all varieties, men and women many of whom are now out in the world doing amazing work.

Back to Wills - "Certain Trumpets" identifies sixteen basic leadership types, ranging from Electoral to Reform to Diplomatic to Artistic to Intellectual. Wills chooses an archetype for each instance, and describes how that individual best epitomizes that brand of leadership. He also presents an anti-type, a man or woman who did not possess the skill set or make the choices necessary for success in that field of leadership. In the Electoral section, for example, Wills cites Franklin Roosevelt as someone who eschewed the traditional Periclean model of the virtuous leader above the flock he would tend. FDR clambered down from the heights of his privileged upbringing to connect with people of lesser status, actively gathering followers through compromise and connection, driven in part by his own humbling experience as a polio victim. The anti-type, Adlai Stevenson, was an inflexible, personally distant liberal, so unable to shift his views or bend to the possibility that others might have valid insights that he was doomed as a political candidate.

It's a worthwhile read, one that contains some wisdom for our current national condition. For anyone who seeks to better understand leadership - their own, or that of others - I recommend it highly.

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