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Leaders Need `Tough-Minded Optimism'


ON LEADERSHIP by John W. Gardner, New York: The Free Press, 288 pp., $19.95

THE final decade of the century hasn't begun. But if current trends are any indication, we can already give it a name: The Introspective '90s.

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Brooding on America's future, wondering how we got here and what it all means, asking who's got the maps and where the compass is - those, I suspect, will be dominant themes as the millennium closes. And drumming through it all will be a single, persistent question: Why are there so few good leaders?

Not a man to wait for the '90s, John W. Gardner has spent the last five years gathering his thoughts on that question. His book could not be more timely. Of the issues facing the nation, none has more bearing on how America and its global partners negotiate their passage into the 21st century.

Fortunately, no one is more qualified to write on the subject than Gardner, probably best known as founder of Common Cause, the citizens' lobby. Not only has he led groups large and small. Not only is he an astute thinker and a fine stylist. He would also be a prime candidate for the title (if America had such a thing) of the Conscience of the Country - a man whose natural feeling for ethics, values, and norms of behavior sings through every line.

The greatness of this book, in fact, is its naturalness. This is no scholarly tome, heavy with erudition and fine-spun distinctions.

``Leadership is not a mysterious activity,'' he writes. ``It is possible to describe the tasks that leaders perform. And the capacity to perform those tasks is widely distributed in the population.''

What are those tasks?

Envisioning goals, affirming values, motivating, managing, achieving workable unity, explaining, serving as a symbol, representing the group, renewing - these are the themes Gardner develops.

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The book is enlivened with examples ranging from George Washington to a nameless engineer in a snowbound northeastern town. It is also rich with his gentle wit. Responding to the assertion that leaders are not made but born, for example, he writes: ``I take the same view of this claim that Dr. Samuel Johnson took of cucumbers, which he said should be carefully sliced, well seasoned with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.''

The tasks and attributes of leadership have already been well studied, and Gardner gladly credits his sources. The real value of this book lies in three other areas.

First, Gardner insists that leadership is closely knit to its context - that what matters is not ``The Leader'' but the leader among the followers. Not surprisingly, he devotes a fair amount of space to discussing community.

Second, he probes the reasons for failures of leadership - and for failures within communities to desire leadership. One reason leaders don't develop, he notes, is because our education rewards the specialist with ``prestigious and lucrative nonleadership roles'' - when in fact leaders must be generalists.

But communities also fail. He makes that point in coining a chillingly accurate phrase - ``the trance of nonrenewal'' - to explain an otherwise puzzling contemporary phenomenon. In most organizations needing renewal, he writes, ``people are satisfied with things as they are, and the leaders are satisfied, too. It is as though the system were asleep under a magic spell. A feature of the trance of nonrenewal is that individuals can look straight at a flaw in the system and not see it as a flaw. Although the organization that is gravely in need of renewal may show many signs of its threatened condition, the signs cannot be seen by those who are under the spell.''

Third, Gardner has a capacity to soar. His final chapter is an unashamedly inspirational peroration. ``What is needed is tough-minded optimism,'' he writes. ``We are designed for the climb, not for taking our ease, either in the valley or at the summit.''

Scholars, of course, will grumble over that tone, as they will over the book's very short segments (some only a paragraph long) and even shorter quotations from sources.

But this book reaches right through them and out the other side - to everyone who wants to believe good leadership is still possible.

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