Leadership Lessons from Garfield
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I recently finished a terrific book, Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard. This biography of President James A. Garfield, about whom I knew very little, despite having taken two U.S. history courses in high school, had so many leadership insights that I thought I’d share them with our followers here. I’ll be quoting from some of the many excerpts I bookmarked while listening to the Audible version, which I highly recommend. I bought the Kindle version to be able to quickly excerpt, and I’ll be giving this book as a gift to friends and family whom I know love history and biographies.

The first excerpt contains at least three insights by my take:

Despite his belief in the goodness of God, however, Garfield knew that death was cruel, unpredictable, and, too often, unpreventable. Perhaps even harder to accept was that the science he so deeply admired, for all its awe-inspiring potential, seemed powerless in the face of it. Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth, to prepare them for what inevitably lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best—books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. “The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,” he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to “appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life.”

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic (p. 17). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The first insight I took away from this passage is that even though President Garfield believed in God, he was also a realist who knew that people can experience many difficulties, and even tragedies, in life. Garfield, himself, had lost his father to a horrible fire that threatened the family homestead when Garfield was a young boy. Garfield’s father saved the home, but lost his life in the process. Still, Garfield, his mother, and his older brother managed to persevere despite this, keeping the family farm through very hard work that they did all by themselves, something atypical during that time.

The second lesson is that President Garfield loved learning and loved books. I’m sure that there are some great leaders who don’t enjoy reading books, but I haven’t met one yet. Books have certainly taught me a great deal in life, even though I’m usually reading them for pleasure.

The third lesson is that and Garfield loved reading books to his children to teach them important lessons, even if they didn’t always learn the lessons he was trying to teach! In watching our pastor’s children’s lesson this morning (via streaming from Ohio; Pastor Jim Wenger was our pastor in Michigan, and he delivers an outstanding sermon every week), I was impressed by his ability to take a complex Gospel parable and make it accessible to kids in elementary school. I realized that if leaders can’t explain their messages in ways that are understandable to children, then perhaps the messages need to be improved, or it’s not that important. I’m sure that some messages can’t be readily grasped by kids, or some aren’t appropriate for young people, but too often leaders get bogged down in jargon or minutiae (something I’m sometimes guilty of) or talk in ways that spotlight themselves rather than what’s important.

I’ll be coming back to this book for several more posts, as the qualities that Garfield possessed, courage, humility, authenticity, and compassion, are the foundations for trustworthy leadership.