Leadership is defined by results, not attributes.
September 10, 2012 11:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books about reluctant leaders who went on to demonstrate outstanding leadership. Both current and historical figures accepted.

For a class I'm taking this semester, I need to read a book about a current or historical leader, with emphasis on their leadership and communication style. I have a few potential ideas already but I’m especially interested in discovering people who were thrust into a leadership role against their will or who were wholly inexperienced at the time they became leaders, but who rose to the occasion brilliantly or eventually managed to figure things out along the way. Obscure or little-known figures particularly appreciated and encouraged, as long as I can track down a book about them.

These can be leaders in any field or arena, not just politics/government/world affairs, business, athletics, etc. Bonus points if it features a woman.

Thank you!
posted by anderjen to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:24 AM on September 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Menachem Nemdel Schneerson was a reluctant, mediocre student of engineering who took the Chabad movement to its astounding heights today. Many of their followers believe he was/is the Messiah.
posted by Melismata at 11:32 AM on September 10, 2012

Famously, Madame Clicquot, widowed at 27, built Veuve Clicquot into a hugely important champagne house.
posted by Jehan at 11:34 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Audie Murphy
posted by HuronBob at 11:35 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Queen Victoria, at least for the early part of her reign. This is only a vague sense I have, without much source knowledge, but maybe worth diving into and see what you turn up.
posted by dry white toast at 11:37 AM on September 10, 2012

Moses, if we are allowed to include quasi-mythical figures. Guy tried to get out of saving his people so hard it took direct intervention from God to convince him.

Dick Winters, one of the main characters described in the Band of Brothers book/miniseries has become an archtypal example of the reluctant "citizen soldier."

Some people have said Colin Powell is like this, although I don't know enough personally to say so one way or the other.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:40 AM on September 10, 2012

Woops Mendel not Nemdel
posted by Melismata at 11:46 AM on September 10, 2012

George Washington is the canonical example. Having once said,

I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.

While he was by most estimations a pretty terrible general, he was a pretty fantastic leader and an inexperienced but powerful orator by the time he got thrust into the leadership of the fledgeling United States.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:55 AM on September 10, 2012

George VI was a "reluctant king". Then he ruled through the Second World War.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 11:59 AM on September 10, 2012

A lot of scientists fit this description. The first one that comes to mind is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who happens to have a very good and recent biography entitled American Prometheus. Whether or not he exhibited "outstanding" leadership might be open to debate, but it's clear he got the job done.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:40 PM on September 10, 2012

I’m especially interested in discovering people who were thrust into a leadership role against their will or who were wholly inexperienced at the time they became leaders

George VI was a "reluctant king". Then he ruled through the Second World War.

Moreover, this was essentially the plot of the historical drama, The King's Speech.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:09 PM on September 10, 2012

Harry Truman was more or less kept in the dark, along with most of the nation, about FDR's illnesses and the progress of World War II. He was as informed as any average citizen, which didn't mean much. For example, he was not informed at all about the Manhattan Project until two weeks after Roosevelt had died and he had assumed the presidency.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman said to reporters:
"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:12 PM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I study seventeenth-century history - the only reason why this was the first example that leaped into my head - but Oliver Cromwell fits this description of a leader pushed forward by circumstance with little initial experience.

He was born into a minor gentry family and were it not for the English civil wars, would probably have remained entirely obscure. After trying to get involved in local and national politics in the 1620s, he screws up spectacularly and alienates most of his peers, ending up living as a yeoman farmer. He gets treatment for depression. And then he has an evangelical conversion, comes into property, manages to become an MP only as the client of much richer and well-connected elites, and decides he's going to seize silver plate being sent by Cambridge University to fund the king's army. He had no previous military experience and little track record of political success at this point.

And yet he becomes pretty unstoppable from that point on. He becomes a cavalry captain then colonel, leading many successful skirmishes and sieges in East Anglia, and 3 years after the war has started is second in command of the army. And he starts to make his mark as a politician, building alliances and becoming a critical bridge between Parliament and army. He is a prime mover in the decision to try and ultimately execute Charles I, and when the English republic fails to deliver promised political and religious reforms, he is made Lord Protector. Within the space of less than 20 years Cromwell has gone from farmer to king in all but name.

How does he do it after having made such a false start? After ten years of studying him my answer is still that the outbreak of war did it for him. He was in the right place at the right time, and either picked up skills along the way or found that he had unexpected talents that would never have been used in peacetime. If you are looking for a short book that sums up his personality and life then I can't recommend highly enough John Morrill's concise but very readable biography (some of which is on preview at Google Books).
posted by greycap at 2:33 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

James Garfield was a reluctant President. Also, *swoon*
posted by PaulaSchultz at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2012

Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? The focus of the book is introversion, but she spends time talking about Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt. Both of them, from the sounds of things, were painfully, painfully shy.
posted by indognito at 4:04 PM on September 10, 2012

Chester A. Arthur sounds lika another US President that may fit the bill. A minor political hack on the bottom half of a fusion ticket, he was thrust into the spotlight after the assasination of James Garfield. He was expected to be a pushover subject to the whims of the party bosses but he shocked everyone by reforming the politcal spoils patronage system that had made his career and creating the modern, independent federal civil service. There aren't that many biographies of him. but this one is pretty good.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:44 PM on September 10, 2012

Vaclav Havel? Don't know if he is regarded as a great leader but his resume wouldn't have appeared really presidential, at least by US norms.
posted by lakeroon at 6:54 PM on September 10, 2012

Alma Spreckels rose from genteel poverty to being the matriarch of the Spreckels Sugar Company fortune. She was a socialite and philanthropist in her later life.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2012

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