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What Makes A Great Leader?

Former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz uses General David Petraeus as a star example of a great leader. (AP)

Former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz uses General David Petraeus as a star example of a great leader. (AP)

Here & Now Guest:

We talk about leaders and leadership constantly, in business, politics, sports, war, but what makes a good leader?

In a now-famous speech, delivered last year at West Point, essayist William Deresiewicz argues that leadership requires solitude, focus and meaningful relationships.

Without those, he says, it’s hard to arrive at thoughts that are truly your own, and hard to develop the moral compass and moral courage necessary to act on those thoughts.

Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale, says those are exactly the qualities our leading institutions are failing to cultivate in their students. Instead, elite colleges are training young Americans to excel in the qualities our society rewards — jumping through hoops and climbing the greasy pole of career and financial success.

“You need a lot of inner strength to say, ‘I’m not going to behave the way everyone wants me to behave,’” he told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job developing that in people.”

Deresiewicz latest book is “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. ”

Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul dismissed Jane Austen in a recent interview.

Naipaul said he did not think any woman writer was equal to him, and of Jane Austen, Naipaul added, “I couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”

Deresiwicz told Here & Now‘s Robin Young that not only is Jane Austen a great writer, but also, “Naipaul’s best work could not exist without Austen, something Naipaul can’t bring himself to admit.”


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  • Mark in Cambridge

    Isn’t this critique just as valid when applied to Professor Deresiewicz’s own profession of academe as well? Surely it is not the case that the tenure system ends up yielding the best teachers, or even the most honorable scholars.

  • Slotejk

    Is it social media that is undermining leadership or is it the lack of true leaders in today’s world?

  • Guest

    When I asked for guidance for moving up in the company I work for, my boss told me that it was “really just about who likes you” and not what your work ethic, intelligence or accomplishments are.  People here don’t like anyone with original thought or strong work ethic.  Leadership here needs to hear (really hear) that speech.

  • http://twitter.com/aidgeoscience Dale Kramer

    Tolerance is the Key to Discipline
    Discipline is the Door to Knowledge
    Knowledge Leads to Inner Peace
    Love is the Leader
    -kramer 1989

  • Nefert-tmu

    Wow.  So Gen. Petraeus is a leader??  I guess he is. . .but where is he leading us? And now he’s with the CIA? Heading it?  Am I the only one that thinks we need a different type of leadership besides professional killers and professional liars? Unbelieveable.

  • Skintigh

    While I don’t disagree with what the host is saying, I think Petraeusis an excellent example of the leadership myth. Things were going well and he was considered a “good leader.” Then political winds changed and he was considered a “bad leader” even though he was right, because right and wrong do not matter in leadership. Then further things that were out of his control changed and he was considered a “good leader” again. So now we justify him being a “good leader” by saying he was right all along, but had things out of his control not changed he would go down in history as a “bad leader,” be right and wrong does not matter in leadership. It’s all politics and purely about image and optics.

    CEOs that are in charge during a boom are “good leaders” (and are “rewarded” with huge payouts) while CEOs during a down economy are “bad leaders” etc.

  • Mary Elizabeth McIlvane

    You quoted Emerson .. my inspiration from his words are:

    “Do not go where the path may lead.  Go instead instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  And I say this now after a few minutes agolooking at a chain of blurbs on Facebook with the thought of what are these words truly saying about the people expressing idle thoughts or events. For the few words I heard of William Deresiewicz I am richer as I better understand who I am from within as I express myself without … thank you!

  • Jeff austin

    I left a great job after suffering the hollow pile of dirt leadership described. I am all in favor of us embracing the “beta role” maligned as weakness in the role of second best. As Beta’s it is our evolutionary imperative to exxagerrate the failures of poor Alpha’s (leaders), back them to the cliffs and gently bless the Earth with their genetics.

  • Cpapalas

    I have always been a person who has needed a lot of solitude.  I think for myself all the time.  I have gotten into trouble at different jobs that I have had, because I am not afraid to tell the boss exactly what I think.  Now, I am retired, and am writing a long story.  I have always written poetry and even plays and opinion pieces, but it is my first time writing a story.  It would never have happened without the solitude.  I know that I am a leader.  In fact, I have been told by my cousins that they looked up to me, because I was the first female in my family to go out and lead an independent life, to dare to live overseas, to not marry young and have children, etc. 

  • Heaviest Cat

    yet more pro-war -pro military propaganda in service to the elites on “public” radio. So much,then fro “independent journalism”

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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