Henry Kissinger on leadership
In his new book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, Henry Kissinger, now age 99, expresses the concern that the ongoing cultural shift from the printed word — especially in books — to the more visual stimuli of the internet and social media risks substituting what he calls "wide imagery" for "deep literacy" and may result in the loss among future leaders of the important qualities of "erudition, learnedness, serious and independent thinking."
This cultural change, Kissinger explains, has been driven by "new technologies" and constitutes a "transformation in human consciousness so pervasive as to be nearly unnoticeable." He worries that it may lead to "corrosive habits of mind" that will lessen future leaders' ability to "cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion." The printed word, unlike visual stimuli, "offer a reality that is reasonable, sequential and orderly — a reality that can be mastered, or at least managed, by reflection and planning."
As it relates to leadership, reading books and well written articles creates what Kissinger calls a "skein of intergenerational conversation" and "encourages learning with a sense of perspective." Visual media, on the other hand, provide "immediacy, intensity, polarity, and conformity." Images, Kissinger explains, generally appeal to emotions, passions, and often unreason. "In an age dominated by television and the [visual] Internet," Kissinger writes, "thoughtful leaders must struggle against the tide."
The great irony here, in Kissinger's view is that while the internet has enabled us to acquire more news and information more quickly, it has not made us wiser or even more knowledgeable. "Facts," he writes, "are rarely self-explanatory; their significance and interpretation depend on context and relevance." And for information to translate into wisdom, he continues, "it must be placed within a broader context of history and experience."
"Intense reading," according to Kissinger, is important to foster the habits of mind and character that make great leaders. The six leaders profiled in Kissinger's book — Germany's Konrad Adenauer, France's Charles de Gaulle, America's Richard Nixon, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, and Britain's Margaret Thatcher — were all "intense readers," which helped them navigate the turbulent times in which they led their respective nations.
And for leaders, nothing is more important to read than history and biographies of historical figures. All the leaders of Kissinger's book were keen students of history — not the theoretical history of academics, but instead the history of men and women who had to confront problems, issues, and circumstances based on incomplete knowledge and sometimes outright misinformation. "History," Kissinger writes, "remains a relentless taskmaster" and, one could add, a valuable teacher. It affords leaders perspective and proportion, and helps develop that most important of leadership qualities: character. For Kissinger, character is "central" to good leadership. "Good character," he writes, "does not assure worldly success, or triumph in statecraft, but it does provide firm grounding in victory and consolation in failure."
In some sense, at least for the intellectual-minded, you are what you read. Intellectual-minded leaders like, for example, Winston Churchill read about the rise and fall of empires, about the courage and steadfastness of military leaders, about the prudence and foibles of politicians, about men and women who shaped their own destinies, about how history's leaders dealt with successes and failures, and about the vagaries of human nature. Churchill's reading — and writing — shaped his character and made him a better leader.
Henry Kissinger has been writing books for seven decades. Some, like A World Restored and Diplomacy, are seminal works of history that should be read by future leaders. Some, like his three-volume memoirs, are indispensable to understanding the vicissitudes confronted by the statesmen of a historical era. Kissinger's books, like Churchill's, impart the knowledge of a historian combined with the experience of a practitioner of statecraft.
Image: Simon & Schuster.