Leadership by Henry Kissinger


Leadership by Henry Kissinger profiled six leaders who led during a dramatic half-century. The leaders in this book influenced the world that followed the two colossal world wars that engulfed Europe and its allies. Their duties included reorganizing collapsing governments, cities, and countries; humbly accepting defeat and enduring global embarrassment; attempting to create global peace; and much more. These leaders struggled to create long term policies when everything that came before was focused on the immediate.

Kissinger's own experience with each of the leaders made this book all the more interesting. There was plenty of research and due diligence from Kissinger that profiled each subject well, but each chapter ended with Kissinger's reflections and lessons from the personal relationships he maintained with each statesmen. I didn't know that when I started reading it and it was a welcomed surprise. For some reason, these interactions made each subject more personal and real, not just someone whose name is in the history books a few times.

Practical lessons

  • If you want to have respect in the world, live by principle and not by slogans, pressure, or persuasion. In a discussion on the qualities of strong leadership, Konrad Adenauer cautioned Kissinger to 'never confuse energy with strength.'

  • Be cautious of whom you show incompetence to, or why you say something can't be done. "Young man," Eisenhower said to Kissinger, "Never tell anyone that you are unable to carry out a task entrusted to you."

  • The First World War eroded trust in the political elite, after Europe's leaders failed to navigate the oncoming disasters.

  • Keep reading and learning widely. Each of the leaders profiled in this book "were taught a wide range of subjects, including especially the humanities, as if in preparation for the challenges of leadership, for which a sense of history and the ability to deal with tragedy are indispensable. Above all, they received an education which would help them to understand the world, the psychology of others and themselves."

  • Attain 'deep literacy'. Defined by Adam Garfinkle as '[engaging with] an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author's direction and meaning.' "Ubiquitous and penetrating, yet invisible," Kissinger writes, "deep literacy was the 'background radiation' of the period in which the six leaders profiled in this book come of age." He wrote also, "Intense reading can help leaders cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion. When combined with reflection and the training of memory, it also provides a storehouse of detailed and granular knowledge from which leaders can reason analogically...Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning."

  • Discipline (self-mastery) and the ability to take the long view are two essential attributes of great leaders. This is helpful to know for myself, but also be wary of the opposite in leaders I'm following. If a leader is constantly falling prey to their desires, not doing what they said they would, or constantly looking for short-term wins, Dalton beware.

  • Be direct. Don't be afraid to tell hard truths. 'Who do you think lost the war?' Adenauer famously said to his fellow members of parliament after they were complaining about the rule and reign of the Allied powers in postwar Germany.

  • Be in tune with reality, but have a guiding vision Kissinger writes, "Mediocre leaders are unable to distinguish between the significant from the ordinary; they tend to be overwhelmed by the inexorable aspect of history." They are able to identify the essential elements of their state and determine which are necessary, which must be improved, and which must be forgotten.

  • Be bold. When faced with important decisions, especially with unfavorable conditions, each leader did what had to be done. Thatcher, under doubt from experts and facing an economic crisis, sent a Royal Navy Task Force to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentina. De Gaulle's attitude with France was to act like it was much bigger, more unified, and much more confident than it actually was.

  • Continue with the practice of solitude Sadat, in prison, initiated his reflective habits. Adenauer followed suit in a monastery as he was in exile. Thatcher made some of the most important decisions while she was reviewing her papers, early in the morning.

  • Paradoxically, they embraced divisiveness. Some divisiveness is okay. Each leader, rightly so, wanted their people to follow on the path that they lead. Naturally, not everyone would follow. But that's okay. They weren't looking for consensus. Naturally, tension was to follow. When de Gaulle appeared in Paris to meet with members of the French defense establishment, a soldier told Kissinger, "whenever he appears, he divides the country." Kissinger writes, "A leader does not undertake fundamental economic reforms as Thatcher did, or seek peace with historic adversaries as Sadat, or build a successful mutliethnic society from the ground up as Lee, without offending entrenched interests and alienating important constituencies." He continues, "Both during their years in government and afterwards, not everyone admired these six leaders or subscribed to their policies. In each case, they faced resistance–often carried out for honorable motives and sometimes by distinguished opposing figures. Such is the price of making history."

  • Be virtuous James Q. Wilson defines virtue as, "habits of moderate action; more specifically, acting with due restraint on one's impulses, due regard for the rights of others, and reasonable concern for distant consequences." #quote Kissinger writes, "Good character does not assure worldly success or triumph, but it does provide firm grounding in victory and consolation in failure."


  • Any and all systems are in transit between and must balance the effects of a past that forms its memory and a vision of the future that inspires its evolution.

  • The vital attributes of leadership are courage and character: courage to make decisions among a set of complex and difficult options and character to continue on that course where the benefits and dangers are not fully realized yet.

  • Leaders operate in scarcity, for every situation has certain limitations placed upon it. They operate in time, for each era will have different values and habits that form the eventual outcome. They also operate in competition, with their allies and those they are up against. They also have to make judgements based on intuitions and hypotheses that cannot be proven at the time of a decision.

  • Different times call for a different style of leadership, these can be classified as a statesman and a prophet. The statesman understands that one of their tasks is to preserve their society by changing their circumstances rather than be overwhelmed by them. They also must balance an exciting vision with a tough of wariness. Statesmen are suspicious of those who personalize policy, because throughout history, many rules and reigns rooted in personality have come down. The second type of leader, the visionary prophet seeks to erase the past. They are suspicious of anything that's gradual because they seek to upheave the past.

  • Konrad Adenauer's strategy to rebuild Germany as an equal with the rest of the powers was composed of four elements: accepting the consequences of defeat; regaining the confidence of the victors; building a democratic society; and creating a European federation that would transcend the historic divisions of Europe.

  • His embracing of the humility of the Allies to "babysit" Germany was his plan to turn submission of the rules into a virtue, and he realized that a temporary inequality of conditions was a necessary precursor to equality of status.

  • He said, "We cannot and must not assume that with the others there has occurred suddenly a complete change in mood toward Germany, but instead trust can only be recovered slowly, bit by bit."

  • To whom can I confide/the secrets of my soul and the cares of my life?

    • De Gaulle's authority rested in his innate sense of personal confidence and an unshakeable faith in France and its history.

    • De Gaulle proclaimed something to be so, and so it was so. He persuaded his people through the creation of a political reality by a sheer force of will.

    • "One must become a man of character. The best way to succeed in action is to know how to dominate oneself perpetually."

  • Three principles from Nixon's time in office would benefit the US:

    • The centrality of national interest

    • The maintenance of a global equilibrium

    • The creation of sustained and intense discussions among major countries to construct a framework of legitimacy within which the balance of power can be defined and observed.

  • Sadat's tendency toward solitude endowed him with insight and independent thought but also marked him as a loner. Though he had been in the highest echelons of Egyptian power, no one really trusted him when he took over from Nasser because he never stepped into the limelight.

  • In 1973, twice Sadat faked-out the Israeli army, causing them to mobilize at great expense. On the third time, Sadat actually struck, this time facing no Israeli reinforcements because, says Israel's then-defense minister that Sadat, "made me do it twice, at a cost of ten million dollars each time. So, when it was the third time around I thought he wasn't serious. But he tricked me!"


  • Leadership is needed to help people reach from where they are to where they have never been and, sometimes, can scarcely imagine going.

  • Leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead.

  • Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their visions.

  • "...what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency."

  • Great leadership is more than an evocation of transitory exultation; it requires the capacity to inspire and to sustain vision over time.

  • Something is amiss when the relationship between the leadership class and much of the public is defined by mutual hostility and suspicion.

  • "Intense reading can help leaders cultivate the mental distance from external stimuli and personalities that sustains a sense of proportion. When combined with reflection and the training of memory, it also provides a storehouse of detailed and granular knowledge from which leaders can reason analogically. More profoundly, books offer a reality that is reasonable, sequential and orderly–a reality that can be mastered, or at least managed, by reflection and planning. And, perhaps, most importantly for leadership, reading creates a 'skein of intergenerational conversation', encouraging learning with a sense of perspective. Finally, reading is a source of inspiration. Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning."

  • "For information to be transmitted into something approaching wisdom, it must be placed within a broader context of history and experience."

  • "Great leadership results from the collision of the intangible and the malleable, from that which is given and that which is exerted. Scope remains for individual effort–to deepen historical understanding, hone strategy and improve character. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote long ago, 'We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.' It is the role of leaders to help guide that choice and inspire their people in its execution."

Random Tidbits

  • "Study history. Study history," Churchill said, "In history lie all the secrets of statecraft." when asked about how one might prepare for the challenges of leadership in may 1953.

  • In prison, Anwar Sadat had undergone a profound transformation. Instead of whittling time away in solitary confinement, he developed what he called 'inner strength.' This was his 'capacity...for change.' He said, "My contemplation of life and human nature in that secluded place had taught me that he who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress. "


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