Enduring Foundations of Leadership

While Diane Brady’s brilliant debut Fraternity isn’t a “Leadership” book, it still might be the most important one I’ve read in a while.

It’s a challenge keeping up with all of the “new discoveries” of esoteric practices distinguishing truly effective leaders.  Amazon allocates 75,000 hits of virtual “shelf space” to the genre.  Some works emphasize how well you strategize.  Others tout execution on core processes.  Many stress emotional and social intelligence.

And yet, follow the news and what leadership behaviors will you observe?  Senior military officials overstating the success of high-stakes interventions abroad.  Technology standard-bearers manufacturing products through third party sweatshops to maximize profits and plausibly deny culpability.  Successful university sports programs overlooking criminal behavior in their leadership.  Financial Services institutions betting against their clients.

If you’re weary of the seemingly endless disappointments in our institutions and the people who lead them, read Fraternity and meet Father Brooks.  The Reverend John E. Brooks was a theology professor at the virtually all-white College of the Holy Cross, during the 1960’s, committed to racially integrating the school.  His argument was simple.  All learners deserved to benefit from the diversity and development of the widest swath of future leaders.  Squandering the strengths and talents African-American students could bring to Holy Cross was therefore unacceptable.

Belief was not enough.  Father Brooks drove his vision hard.  He took it upon himself to convince the college to put up scholarships.  He personally identified high-achieving and high-potential African American high schoolers and took to the road to sell them on largely Irish Worcester, Massachusetts.  With consistency of purpose and action, he attentively nurtured, mentored and repeatedly went to bat for the students with the Administration and Trustees during a time of unprecedented social upheaval, confusion and instability.

To be sure, the story is mainly about the hard-won achievements of a group of remarkable young men.  Among Father Brooks’ twenty recruits in 1968 were top defense attorney Theodore Wells, Pulitzer Prize winner for literature Edward P. Jones, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and other noteworthy successes.  Their individual accomplishments and proven talents notwithstanding, many alums continue to place credit with John Brooks.  Without him, “none of us would have made it,” Brady recounts one telling her.

Fraternity reads well, drawing you in quickly and holding your attention throughout.  If you read it with a view to the leadership angle, Fr. Brooks’ behavior demonstrates a four-prong model of leadership people used to unselfconsciously term “moral authority.”  Simply put, he had a (1) clear vision of a future (2) promoting shared benefit, which he (3) pushed toward with stubborn flexibility, consistently upholding his (4) personal accountability.  Rather than acting to promote his own financial security, position of power, or even social standing, he committed to serve as a vehicle for achieving something of intrinsic value.

Maybe, Fr. Brooks’ leadership model will cycle back into vogue soon.  I’m hoping so.

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