biographies for leaders

Some of the best leadership books aren’t leadership books – they’re biographies.

Biographies don’t run away from challenges, frustrations, confusions, or failures the subject experienced (at least not the best ones). They allow us to enter into a world we never could on our own, whether it’s someone from the past who is gone, a person from a far away culture, or a leader who holds a position we likely won’t ever hold. While President Torrence has a nice ring to it, after seeing this election unfold, I’d rather just read Washington’s biography.

There are four biographies you need to add to your reading list. Are you ready to find out what they are?

Well, I won’t tell you…because I can’t. There are four biographies you should read, but they’re probably not the four I need to read. Let me explain. Obviously, there are countless worthwhile biographies to read. Amazon lists one hundred biographies and memoirs to read in a lifetime. One hundred is a lot. Where would you even start?

Four Biographies for Leaders to Consider

Instead of giving you my four favorite biographies, here are four categories to help you discover your favorites. These categories have helped me know what to look for and how to narrow a lot of good stories into the ones I should focus on first.

So, find one biography in each of the following categories, and add it to your reading list.

1 – A Pioneer in Your Field

Find a biography of someone who has revolutionized your area of interest or profession.

Since I am a pastor, I found a great autobiography by Eugene Peterson called, “The Pastor.” Obviously with that title it didn’t take me too long to realize its applicability. Peterson is a true pioneer in the church world. He wrote a translation of the entire Bible that used everyday English phrasing to make the text as accessible and understandable as possible. He’s a fascinating person… at least to me.

Eugene Peterson may be less interesting or relevant to you – so pick someone who is relevant or interesting to you. What challenges unique to your field did this person face and how did they handle those problems? Chances are, you’ll be inspired in your work today.

2 – A Hero You Admire

Find a great leader of the past, current cultural icon of the present, or anyone you revere and read a biography about them.

It’s easy to forget that great heroes are people… real people not so different from us as we might think. Biographies help humanize our heroes.

One of my heroes was an activist and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He ministered during the rise of Nazi Germany. I knew Bonhoeffer was an influential writer, but I never knew until I read a compelling biography on him by Eric Metaxas the story behind Bonhoeffer’s theology – the anguish, doubts, and confusion he experienced.

It’s inspiring to learn even the greatest heroes struggle. Humanizing a hero doesn’t mean they stop being heroic. In fact, it often makes them all the more compelling because we see them as real people.

3 – Someone from the “Other Side”

Learn more about a person with whom you passionately disagree. Let them – or a fair biographer – share why they believe what they believe. And “fair” is a key word. It’s easy to find a biography written by a detractor, but that type of biography won’t help you learn anything new.

This has the potential to be the most impacting category. When we passionately disagree, it’s easy to form stereotypes. We stop seeing other people as people. Stereotypes are hurtful. No one likes to be lumped in a box. Think about a way you are stereotyped. Is it because of your race, politics, religious beliefs, financial situation, or something else? Wouldn’t you love to have a person who disrespects your viewpoint read your story? We all have nuances to the decisions we make and beliefs we hold. Biographies are a powerful combatant to stereotypes.

So, if you’re a Democrat, read a Republican’s story. I’m a Christian and decided to pick up a biography on the Prophet Muhammad, written by a non-Christian. Read a story about someone from a different perspective on race relations, immigration, gun control, or whatever issue you feel passionate about. You may not wind up agreeing, and that’s okay. But you will have gone a long way in fighting against hurtful stereotypes.

Imagine how it would change the world if everyone were open to listening to the story of a person from the “other side.” We would definitely have a better election year, that’s for sure.

4 – An Inspiring Story

Find a story about an ordinary person who made a big difference.

We live in a culture obsessed with celebrity, wealth, power, and fame. However, some of the most important biographies come from people who aren’t household names and may never be. They aren’t famous, but they have an incredible story. They persevered over great odds. They faced incredible injustice. They stood up to powerful oppressors.

These stories are often the most life-changing. I’ve seen people completely change fields because they read an inspirational biography about an ordinary person with extraordinary passion. So, choose wisely – your life may never be the same!

Biographies for Leaders: A Challenge

Here’s my theory – if you read a biography in each of these categories, you will be a better leader. You will be more inspired and balanced. So, join with me and think of four biographies to add to your must-read list.

If you have read a great biography, share it with us!