27 January 2020

On today’s show, I talk with Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English at the United State Military Academy at West Point and author of the anthology Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers.  Samet uses literature to teach cadets how to lead in the grand sense; that is, how to be thoughtful, strategic, ethical, principled and purposeful.  In the show today she shares some of the stories from the anthology, each with a specific lesson on leadership and living the good life.



  • How Pericles used rhetoric to rally the people of Athens during the Peloponnesian War
  • How a metaphor from Moby Dick is still relevant today
  • Why Seneca deliberately set up his quarters above a noisy public bath
  • How the Roman General Fabius Maximus used strategic “delay” to win a war
  • How President Abraham Lincoln exercised his judgment and decision-making skills


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Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using Artificial Intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors may occur.

Sean Murray 0:00
Welcome to The Good Life! I’m your host, Sean Murray. Today’s guest is Elizabeth Samet, professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the editor of an anthology titled, Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers. I picked up this book by chance at an airport bookstore in 2015, and it changed my life. The book is a collection of excerpts from some of the greatest writers, thinkers, philosophers, and leaders going back thousands of years. In this collection, you’ll find everything from Homer, the cedities, Plutarch, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Shakespeare; and in more modern times, Churchill, Lincoln, Grant, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr, just to name a few. Professor Samet has carefully selected writings; sometimes it’s a letter; sometimes it’s a speech or poem; and other times, it’s an excerpt from a longer work and each selection teaches the reader specific lessons about leadership and life in general. She draws on these writings to teach the cadets at West Point how to be leaders in the grand sense–thoughtful, ethical, strategic, principled, and purposeful.

On the show today, she’s going to share a few of these stories and the corresponding lessons that will help us become better leaders and hopefully live more meaningful, purposeful lives. Professor Samet did ask me to read this disclaimer: the views of Elizabeth Samet expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government. With that, my friends, I bring you Elizabeth Samet.

Intro 1:46
You’re listening to The Good Life by The Investor’s Podcast Network, where we explore the ideas, principles, and values that help you live a meaningful, purposeful life. Join your host, Sean Murray, on a journey for the life well lived.

Sean Murray 2:10
Elizabeth, welcome to The Good Life podcast!

Elizabeth Samet 2:13
Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Sean.

Sean Murray 2:16
Can you talk a little bit about the idea behind this book, and, you know, where it came from, and what you were trying to achieve?

Elizabeth Samet 2:23
Sure. So my approach, obviously, as you well know in the academy, leadership studies is really dominated by social scientists. But I am an English professor, who teaches at a military academy, and so I have a slightly different perspective. So that the idea that was that the book would complement those works done by social scientists, and draw upon my strengths, and my interests, and what I teach, which, of course, is literature. I’m also interested in literary history, and my text do range. So the idea was to use my discipline of literature as a foundation, and also to include many of those texts that aren’t necessarily immediately connected to leadership studies.

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Sean Murray 3:07
What’s the reaction you’ve gotten from students as far as using text to teach leadership? I know that’s a little controversial in some sectors. If I can, you teach leadership, or can you learn about leadership by reading, or especially reading something that was written 2500 or 3000 years ago?

Elizabeth Samet 3:24
Right. Well, the philosophy of the institution where I teach is, of course, that leaders can be developed. The whole process contributes to leader development. My own personal philosophy harmonizes with that, but I also think that the texts from which one can learn most about leadership, as I’ve suggested, has no overt connection to leadership. The other thing I think is that I don’t teach these texts as leader development texts. I teach them because I think they’re interesting texts. And so the leader development that happens is, in a sense, implied rather than explicit. It’s not necessarily the end of the goal of these particular readings. But that in figuring out how people deal with various situations in these texts; how people deal with emergencies and crises; how people learn from their mistakes is something that I think incubates within a person, within a reader. And then, may not, the influence may not show for years and years.But I’ve learned from teaching English for a long time now that it’s often a profession of delayed gratification. You never know, maybe until ten years down the road, what someone has, has absorbed from his or her reading.

Sean Murray 4:35
Wow, that’s so true. Just in the few years that I’ve had this book with me, I’ve taken it with me on many trips; read it on planes in airports or hotels. And I’ll read a story, and it just might have to sink in. I might not figure out right away how am I going to apply that or how is that going to show up in my life. And then inevitably, six months later, a year later, something will happen, and it will trigger a memory of, “Oh, it was–reminds me of that Aesop fable or one of the essays for Montaigne that I read.” The structure of the book I found extremely helpful because when I consider sitting down to read a complete work by Plutarch, or let’s just take, War and Peace by Tolstoy, for example. My first thought is, “Oh, boy! Here’s this long work. I’m gonna get lost in it. I’m gonna be confused. I might invest hours in this, and what am I going to gain?” But in this anthology, you give the reader a bite-sized excerpt with a tangible lesson and is presented to us in this beautiful story. And it becomes an entree into the world of the writer and I, I never got bogged down. And the way you structure and order the selections, there’s a natural flow. It’s not just random selections, you’re, you’re actually walking the reader through a personal learning journey. So can you talk about that?

Elizabeth Samet 5:57
Sure. I had in mind the table of contents, which is there’s a table of contents, and then, an alternate table of contents to, to organize it by sort of the argument of the book, but then also by fields of interest. So people who work in different kinds of industries, or businesses, or fields, can draw something from the various chapters. I had in mind here, trying to think about a book that might be suited to any stage of a career. So the undergraduate thinking about what kind of leader he or she wants to be; to the CEO, who, who thinks perhaps that she’s already figured it out, but maybe at a crossroads, or may have to learn a new way of doing business. And so I tried to organize it that way. And also, I’m glad to hear that you did it in the way you have ’cause my hope was also that one could pick it up and put it down; could read a selection. And then, take some time and, and think about it; digest it; and then, come back to it. The sort of basic outline of the book, I begin with a section called, Studying the System because I thought that one of the first mistakes that a leader can make, indeed, one of the first mistakes that I found a teacher can make is assuming you know the community with which you’re working before you start. And that’s often not true. And it requires a certain degree of patience to sort of learn the system; learn the community; learn the business culture, whatever it may be before attempting to take it in a new direction; get the most out of that community. So I, I guess that first section counsels a kind of patience.

Sean Murray 7:25
Maybe I’ll stop you there–these first four, then go to the, the next part of the book. Because first four you mentioned, well you mentioned, studying the system and then knowing the way. And kind of embedded in that is emulating our heroes and risking revision, which is about, you know, adapting; changing. The world’s always changing. Your principles might stay the same, but great leaders seem to be able to adjust and flow. I want to just highlight a few texts to give the audience an idea of what you pulled out; what selections from our greatest thinkers and our greatest writers you pulled out. And in the studying the system, a couple that stood out for me were Thucydides, the great Greek historian and general from the Peloponnesian War, who wrote about a speech by Pericles, where he reminds the Athenians who they are. And I had never read that speech before. It really stood out to me. It really struck me as, “Wow, what a great leader! And how often does a business leader; a military leader; any organizational leader need to at some times, when your back’s against the wall, remind people what you’re all about, or what your strength is to get through some kind of challenge, which, of course, at the time was in Athens was facing a major, a major challenge from Sparta, and the plague, and some other terrible things that were going on in Athens. And here’s Pericles standing up and saying, “Don’t forget what we’re all about and where our strength is.”

Elizabeth Samet 8:49
Yeah. I agree, I, so this is, is, as you suggested, is not Pereclis’ most famous speech. That, that would be the funeral oration on which Lincoln modeled the Gettysburg Address. But I really liked this speech for this anthology because it does happen, as you know, in the middle of a crisis; in the middle of this war; and Pereclis needs to remind the Athenians of why they got into this in the first place. And also that the reasons they got into the war, or the way they felt when they got into the war may not be the same as what they feel now. And I think that that’s important to think about the reasons for going may not be the reasons for staying. The other thing he reminds them of, because, of course, they are a great democracy. They think of themselves as a great democracy, but also, he suggested because of their dominance on the sea that they’re also an empire now. And they may not realize they’re an empire, but they need to think about themselves that way. And he says that, you know, it’s dangerous to keep it, but it’s more dangerous to let it go. And so he’s trying to sort of tell them–help them understand that their culture has changed. And I think that can happen, and it can take people unawares. Especially when they are in crisis mode; that the ground truths have changed, and they need to sort of be able to figure out their relationship to them.

Sean Murray 10:08
Great example of a leader sort of giving context to the organization or the country they’re leading and helping them see the challenges they face and, and kind of pointing away to navigate through. The other selection, and there’s probably eight or ten selections that you, you put into studying the system. Moby Dick, Herman Melville, you pulled this, this short chapter story, I’m not sure if there’s a complete chapter, but you pulled this story out of Moby Dick. I’ve tried to read Moby Dick. And I’ve never made it all the way through. There’s times the writing just pops off the page, and other times, it just seems like I’m slogging through. And, you know, I get the big metaphor. The metaphor comes up all the time. And it just never really, you know, resonated with me, and then you pulled this section out. I, I don’t remember reading, and I’m sure I did because I think it’s fairly early in the book–is about the monkey rope. Talk a little bit about that. When I read that I thought, “Wow, this is really describing the world we live in today in so many ways.”

Elizabeth Samet 11:08
Well, I think your experience with Melville’s novel is not unusual. I think many people have that experience. Maybe it requires a sort of a certain patience and dedication that we–most people don’t have time for. I think it does reward reading, but it’s also full of sort of really wild and unexpected insights, and that, that’s why I think it deserves time. But this one in particular, one of my favorite sections as well describes the monkey rope is the rope that ties the sailor, who was on the captured whale, you know, in the process of trying to cut it up and prepare it, you know, to extract the blubber from the whale, and that it’s a very perilous business to be perched on this rotating carcass of a whale at sea. And so, the system that is set up on this ship is to tie this sailor to another sailor who was on the deck of the ship. And this is of course narrated by Ishmael, to whom the whaler in the, in the water is tied. And so this becomes a great symbol and it reinforces for Ishmael how intimately he is connected to the various people in the world. And for Melville, this has a particular 19th century urban, industrial context in that Ishmael uses this moment to think about all the ways he’s tied to people he doesn’t even know. And so, he talks about being tied to one’s banker; being tied to a pharmacist; being tied to all these people with whom we collide. And of course, this is even truer now in a global world. And so the idea of being tied; your fate is tied to strangers and what might that mean? And so this is the occasion for that particular meditation.

Sean Murray 12:51
Yeah, and I found that powerful, and I–in my work, where I do leadership development, has come up recently in workshops and working with clients–is this idea that decisions made almost anywhere in an organization and–have a huge impact because we’re all connected. You know, a good example is the United Airlines incident from a couple years ago, where a passenger was physically pulled off a plane. It was filmed by–on someone’s phone. And that incident there, obviously, we were all connected to that incident. You know, in the past, something like that could have happened. Maybe it would impact the 30 people on the plane that saw it. And maybe their five friends that they told, but now immediately, it gets out to a hundred million people. It creates billions of dollars in market value loss for United. And this is the sort of world that we live in now; with Twitter and social media. And I thought, “Wow, Melville was capturing that!” This kind of gets to the heart of what I found fascinating about your book, and where it really opened my eyes to reading some of these great thinkers, is that this wisdom is out there, and it’s relevant. You just have to find it, and spend a little time reflecting.

Elizabeth Samet 13:58
Yeah, I, I think we have a bias toward the contemporary and the current, but if you do dig around in older texts, I think you do find some really surprising connections, and that’s what makes them stick with us ’cause I don’t think we expect to find, you know, Melville’s world was so differen; Thucydides ‘world was so different, but there are certain timeless constants that, that reinforce for us sort of perennial challenges.

Sean Murray 14:22
Early on in the anthology, you were mentioning you talked about the structure that you have, in addition to the chapters you have, these sections called albums, which highlights skills. If the chapters put a highlight steps along the leader’s journey, or phases, or thresholds that the leader would walk through as, as you go through your journey. You also need some skills on the way. And the first one that comes up was “the artist of deep attention,” is what you called it. And you pulled some selections from writers that had to do with how do you stay focused in a distracted world. The one that stood out for me was Seneca. He’s writing in this very loud, noisy place, and what struck me was, you know, that Rome was a very loud place. We think that our world is loud. We think that our world is noisy with all these apps, and with everything that’s going on; or distractions in our phones, but it’s really nothing new under the sun. Seneca was dealing with something very similar. And we get to get right into his mind and find out, “Well, how did he deal with this?” Tell me a little bit about this selection, and how you found it, and why you put it in here.

Elizabeth Samet 15:22
Well, I love this one because, because it does feel very in a weird way very contemporary. He chooses this place to live and, and work, where it’s the noisiest possible place. And he details all the things that are going on. I mean, he’s sort, he’s–it’s near a gym. And so he’s got all these people making all these noises and shouts, and there’s a pool there, and they’re leaping into the pool. And he chooses this place, and he in order to refine his concentration and block things out, he says that he’s hardened himself against all these disturbances. He is forcing himself to focus on his mind and not be distracted by outside events. And his point is that this sort of search that he have for tranquility. We think that if we lock ourselves in a silent room, we’ll gain some kind of concentration. But his point is that you need a kind of inner tranquility. And you can set up all the conditions of silence you want, but if you are turbulent, and restless, and distracted inside, you will continue to be that way. And so, he’s using this to sort of think about the ways in which we might best achieve self-knowledge and self-awareness that helps us to sort of direct ourselves. And then, my favorite part of the essay is that at the end, he says after all this, and after he says, “It’s not outside, but inside peace,” he said, “but I’m also really tired of living where I am. So it was an experiment, and I think I’m gonna move.”

Sean Murray 16:42
Yeah, he tested himself. He put himself in a noisy environment just to see how he could improve his focus and his attention. And, again, what stood out for me was that we sometimes think in this modern world that it’s, you know, we’re dealing with these challenges for the first time, and we’re really not. Another section that really had an impact on me was the George Orwell essay, Shooting the Elephant. I had not read that essay before. I’m a big Orwell fan. For me, it was this incredible metaphor revealed the impact of culture. Sometimes things get started and you really lose control. When there’s a mob around, or when there’s people or momentum going in one direction that you can be incredibly impacted. You can be compelled to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Because something started, the snowball kind of got going, and you got caught up in it. And it can even cross moral li(nes) [SIC]. It can compel you to do something that you wouldn’t morally or ethically normally do. You can see, it just hits you emotionally, when you read that passage by Orwell. Can you talk a little bit about that? I just found that one fascinating.

Elizabeth Samet 17:51
There’s an elephant who’s gotten out of control, and his attendant is nowhere to be found, and he escapes, and he’s wreaking havoc. And so Orwell is sent out to deal with the elephant, and he ends up shooting it. And he realizes even as he’s about to do it that it was the wrong thing to do. But he also knows that he’s, he has to do it. And he reveals at the end that he has been deformed by this system; by this colonial system. And of course, this is years later after reflecting on it. At the time, he doesn’t–he knows it’s wrong, but he, he feels he has no, no option. And that’s where as you suggest, he crosses this moral line. And I think we see that all the time. That people are unable to extricate themselves soon enough from certain gray areas. And, and that’s really where he finds himself, and he realizes that his own freedom of action and of movement has been destroyed by the–this whole system.

Sean Murray 18:47
Well, those are some great examples of how to study the system; how to hone your attention. You go into also adapting as you go; a section on risking revision; and then, knowing the way. That to me is the first chapter where you say, “Okay, how are you going to move? How are you going to find yourself? How are you going to follow the truth; be the best possible leader you can be and lead your organization towards its vision?” And I think it was the first section, where you started to bring in some Eastern texts, which I wasn’t as familiar with. So you bring in Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching and Sun Tzu from The Art of War. And I found the lyrical poetry of the way the eastern world thinks about finding the way to be, you know, it’s very different. It–maybe it was just where I was in my life, I found it to be quite refreshing to just look at it from a different perspective; very sparse as far as the words at times. You know, just very simple phrases and repetition that just sort of reminds you of what the truth is and what the path to enlightenment.

Elizabeth Samet 19:52
Yeah, I think so that–one of the things that this section wrestles with is this relationship between contemplation and action. And I think we have in today’s world, I think the pendulum swings back and forth. But I think we certainly have a bias for action, and also a bias for practical experience. And this chapter was an argument for judgment and thinking, rather than leaping to action. And so, the inclusion of the poetry sections because, of course, poetry takes some time to wrestle with is an attempt to sort of suggest that. That sometimes it’s this thing: reading, and thinking, and contemplating, and absorbing. The other thing that particularly, the Tao Te Ching talks about is this idea of not necessarily seeking to control nature, but dwelling within it. And several of the selections, even from a very different tradition: the selection from Tolstoy’s War and Peace wrestles with a similar problem, which is this fantasy we have of total control; that we can control everything, and that it’s only a matter of figuring out how, in order to do that. And I think that’s really a fantasy. I think it happens in military culture. I think it happens in civilian cultures. So the idea here is to sort of accept that you cannot control everything.

Sean Murray 21:09
I found the passage from Tolstoy to be also very compelling, very revealing. It motivated me to read War and Peace. I haven’t read it yet. But I had never picked up Tolstoy before that section, and incredible writing; incredible insight into humans, and how we think, and how we interact. You also have a section from The Art of War. Immediately after that section, you put in another album. It’s called, “Artists of Delay.” And I thought it was just a brilliant move because I was reading about finding the way; reading these great thinkers from history; from antiquity; from the Middle Ages, they thought about this deeply. And then, here, you, you throw us a curveball, and I thought it was great because then, you said, “Well, sometimes the way is actually to delay.” The passage that really stood out for me in the Artists of Delay was the wonderful story from Plutarch about Fabius Maximus, which I don’t think I’d read that one before either. And maybe you could talk a little bit about that because I, I thought that was a great lesson. Talk a little bit about Fabius Maximus.

Elizabeth Samet 22:11
Fabius Maximus is one of the series of generals who’s charged defeating Hanibal, the great Carthaginian general, who threatens Rome. Nobody seems to be able to figure Hannibal out. Hannibal is–he’s a great commander. He’s very far, of course, from his home-base, and he’s creating havoc, and so a lot of Romans think that the best way to do this would be to be aggressive; and to go after Hannibal; and force him into the field and fight with him. And that seems to be the Roman way of doing things and Fabius Maximus decides no. He’s going to take advantage of his comparative strength of supply, closer as he is to his base, and the fact that Hannibal is in enemy territory. So he instead decides to make it a war of waiting; to wait Hannibal out and deplete his strength in that way. And all the other Romans don’t understand this is a good way of doing business. And they say, “Don’t,” they counsel, “this is, you know, this is terrible. What are you doing? You’re allowing Hannibal to sort of lord it over you. And this is really kind of embarrassing.” And Fabius Maximus withstands a great deal of pressure from those in his army, who think that this is just not a, an appropriate way to make war. And he waits Hannibal out, and it’s a very unpopular course of action, but ultimately a successful one.

Sean Murray 23:26
As I recall, there was a, there was another younger general, who’s sort of got tired of waiting and said, “Give me some troops. I’m gonna go out and solve this problem, right? You know, I’m not going to be weak like you. I’m gonna go out there. I’m gonna take on Hannibal. I’m gonna take him straight on, and solve this problem right away, and restore our Roman honor. It doesn’t go well for that younger general. Everyone then looks back at Fabius, and says, “Well, maybe Fabius kind of knew what he was doing. We should listen to Fabius and listen to the wisdom of the older general, who’s been around and knew to use the strengths that Rome had, and to use Hannibal’s weaknesses against him.” And it ended up being a great strategy, but it wasn’t easy. He took a lot of heat. It’s a great reminder for leaders that if you’ve got a strategy and you believe in it, that it’s not always going to be popular, and you’re going to have to stick through. And sometimes the best strategy is not necessarily to go out swinging and fighting.

Elizabeth Samet 24:23
Right. And, you know, there’s a point where bluetec says the only one who appreciated Fabius’ strategy was Hannibal, and all the ones thought it was terrible. But I think it’s easy to confuse a strategy of delay or waiting, or patience, or restrain with indecision. Those aren’t the same things, but they sometimes look alike.

Sean Murray 24:43
Yes, you know, and that’s where wisdom really comes into play. And that’s where going back and reading these texts and making that a part of your leadership development practice is an important piece. To know the difference between indecision and delay; to have the conviction that you’re on the right path. That you’re not just being indecisive, but this is the strategic way. The strategic way is to wait it out; to let your competitor kind of play out their strategy and deplete their resources. And then, you’re gonna go do whatever you’re gonna do. So at this point, you move on to cultivating trust and negotiating world and self. Talk a little bit about those sections. And if there’s a section that you want to highlight, I’d be happy to talk about that as well.

Elizabeth Samet 25:29
The next several sections think about once a leader has a, has a principal and a philosophy, and is also willing to change, and adapt, and to risk revision. So you’re thinking about what kinds of culture to foster. And I think cultivating trust is a particularly important one. Trust is something that everybody is talking about these days. I think people have different ideas about it, or they think there’s some shortcut to cultivating it, but it sometimes takes a great deal of time. Fabius is, is a great example of that. But I think it, it’s extremely important, part of the–I think one of the keys to cultivating trust is a willingness to, to sort of underwrite failure, and to let people who work with and for you find their own way. And that requires sometimes an inordinate amount of patience and time. But I don’t think there’s any shortcut to empowering people who are part of your culture, whatever industry that may be.

Sean Murray 25:55
Well, one of the sections that for me in pretty (*inaudible*) cultivating trust was the, the Martin Dempsey Essay on Mission Command, which comes from your world at, at West Point in the US military. What I got out of that essay was Dempsey was arguing that the effective military leader of the future is going to be much more about communicating the vision: this is where we need to go; this is the strategy. I’m going to let my subordinates, my colonels, my officers figure out how to do that on the ground. And we’re not going to dictate command and control, I guess, is the way I think about the alternative form of leadership that maybe we sometimes think about, when we think about the US military. I think that’s changed. You have better insight into that than I do, obviously. But he was making an argument for we’ve got to trust that the people that work for us; the people that are in our organization are going to know the best way to implement and execute on a strategy.

Elizabeth Samet 27:33
Right, and I, I think so–this is a sort of an older tradition that actually dates from, from the Prussian army that fought with Napoleon. And the idea sort of revived and popularized by Martin Dempsey–when he was the Chief of Staff of the army, and then, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–was this idea of Mission Command, which requires faith, not only in the people with whom you work, but all in the system that trains them. So that the idea of Mission Command is that the commander’s intent, as you’ve noted, needs to be communicated within the best way to go about achieving it is left to one’s subordinates. And that is a real hands-off style of leadership. It’s one that I think, at least in the last 18 years, has been necessitated in many ways by the kinds of wars we’ve been fighting. But I think it has an applicability far beyond the military. But I think a lot of senior leaders in uniform and out, you can easily understand might be uncomfortable with this. And the idea that you’re seeding a certain amount of control, and that it has to be underwritten by mutual trust and confidence.

Sean Murray 28:48
After the section on cultivating trust; again, you throw us a little curveball, which again, I found–I just love the way that you juxtapose some of these essays. You, you offer a selection of essays that are about con artists…

…opposite of building trust. And, you know, some of them are, you know, you got to be–are sort of warnings that, “Hey, there’s some people out there that are nefarious, or they’re going to be trying to con you, you know, trick you. And you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be aware that there’s these people are out there.” But you also threw a few in that section that I would say argue for–sometimes the way forward is telling 100% of the truth may not be the best way to get what you need at all times, you know? And this kind of goes back to an ancient argument about is, is there a good lie, or is there a bad lie? But it felt like there also were–the section I’m thinking of is or the essay I was thinking of was the Mervyn LeRoy Essay, who was an actor or a, an extra on a set of a movie by Cecil B. DeMille. Early in the 20th century, and he talks about being a part of this Hollywood set. This was on the set of Moses as I recall. And DeMille was the director, and he wanted to get the most out of his actors. He wanted to get the most out of the extras that were there. And at one point, he tells a little white lie to his set as you probably recall. He says something like, you know, “Someone on the set has died. It’s been tragic. And everyone, I just want a moment of silence.” And everyone takes on this solemn demeanor, and he gets the shot that he needs for his movie. And it was a little deception, but he ended up getting what he wanted. And in the end, it was, it was the con artist as, as artist, I guess. But you talk a little bit about that section, and if you want to mention anything about the essay about DeMille, I’d be interested in that too.

Elizabeth Samet 29:01

Well, this section is one of my favorites in that it is sort of counterintuitive. Why is this here? But it highlights a couple of things for me. The first is that I think leadership is a kind of performance, in part. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. We all perform a variety of roles in public. And I think we just have to accept that. I think a performance can be heartfelt; it can be honest. And I think the kind of deception that leaders often perform is that they don’t share necessarily their own worries or anxieties with those around them. So there is a sort of stoicism, I think, that some leaders feel it is important to display in order to give some kind of strength and confidence to those who work with them. Then, of course, there’s the other kind of performance; the kind of con game that I think Cecil B. DeMille illustrates there in that he makes up this story about, about the cast member, in order to get everybody–he asked for a moment of silence and everybody is so moved by this that he, as you suggest, he gets exactly the take that he wants. So I mean, they are, you know, it’s, it’s on a movie set, and, and it’s all about a kind of performance. But I think it illustrates the sort of fine line between those kinds of performances that seem to be consistent with one’s principles and other kinds of performances, which are outright deception. And which, you know, I don’t think I would recommend to any leader in terms of being conzinant with, with the kind of healthy principles and a healthy culture. But I also think people–the other reason I included it was that I think people need to be on guard against those kinds of performers. Because let’s face it, con artists are out there, and we need to be armed against them.

Sean Murray 32:36
Absolutely. And again, it’s, it’s wisdom that’s gonna help you realize and navigate through those challenging pathway there between cultivating trust and being a performer at times. I think Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are great examples of leaders who have a certain performance. There’s a certain aspect of their character that they live up to when they’re talking to the press, and when they’re in front of their shareholders in Omaha. And there’s–you did put an essay and about Buffett towards the end. But before we get there, moving on from cultivating trust, there’s a section on negotiating the world and self. This was my first introduction to Montaigne. You put an essay in here. It’s called, Of Cannibals. Maybe you could talk a little bit about of camp because that, that essay resonated with me, and I decided to read the whole book of essays, haha! And I did get through that.

Elizabeth Samet 33:32
Yeah, I, I mean, I think he’s absolutely an original. He has a kind of modernity that we wouldn’t necessarily associate with this 16th century Frenchman. The–these essays are really experimentation. And that’s what I think keeps them so fresh and engaging to 21st century readers. And he ranges wildly in his topics: from cannibals to cowardice, and in this case in, Of the Cannibals, he’s talking about this idea that what is a barbarian, right? And he, he thinks that of course Europeans think everybody else is a barbarian just as the Greeks thought everyone who didn’t speak Greek that was, you know, of course, the original meaning of barbarian. And so he talks about savagery; he talks about exploration to the new world; and the Europeans assumption that they are entering a savage culture. And he really uses this clash between Old and New World to reveal the savageries of European culture, and the primitive nature of the cruelty that he sees exerted every day. He has lived through the religious wars of France, which were absolutely brutal. So he uses this occasion of a meeting between New World and Old to reflect on his own culture, and to see his own culture anew. And I think that ability to look; to stand outside one’s own culture; and see it afresh is crucial for anyone.

Sean Murray 35:02
Absolutely. There’s a passage in, in that essay, where is describing this native tribe. Few of the tribal members actually came over to France and met the King of France and Montaigne had a chance to be at the court talk to these tribal leaders from the area near Brazil. They were sort of stunned by the poverty they saw in Europe; the disparity in wealth; the extreme wealth of the court, and then walking in the streets of Paris and seeing beggars and the poverty, and they said, “We view our brothers as one half of ourselves. And we would never stand for treating each other like this because we are all connected.” I guess that’s an example, when you go back and read some of these great writers and thinkers. There will be passages, maybe it’ll be a little different for you as a reader than it was for me or for anyone that picks this up, but you will find passages that will stick with you and guide you at times, when you absolutely need them. And that was one passage that stuck with me and actually motivated me to read the rest of Montaigne. So you then move on to taking responsibility and learning from failure. Talk a little bit about those two sections.

Elizabeth Samet 36:12
Sure. So the, the idea of taking responsibility can mean sort of very local question–taking responsibility for oneself, but also thinking about all those things, we are responsible in a larger sense. And that’s why I include as the last selection in this chapter, something from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in which Carson challenges her readers by insisting that responsibility for the environment belongs not just to leaders, but to everyone. But I think this idea that we are responsible to subsequent generations is something that leaders have interpreted in a variety of ways. And that can be just sort of thinking about their own legacies in a given organization, or, and this requires a great deal of imagination, thinking about future generations.

Sean Murray 37:02
So then you move on to a collection of essays around learning from failure. I thought this was also brilliant because any leader who goes out into the world and tries to change things; tries to implement their vision, it never goes perfectly. There’s always going to be obstacles; there’s going to be setbacks; there’s going to be events that can be interpreted as failure. And often they are just another step in the journey of the leader as far as the learning–learning about the world; learning about themselves. And another step towards the eventual goal. It was just that’s the way that they got there. What stood out for me in, in this section, you’ve got number of great–you got Heraditus, which is a wonderful story; you got Plutarch on Alexander, but what stood out to me was Ulysses S. Grant’s Essay from his autobiography–a valuable lesson, when he reflected back on his campaign in the Civil War. Grant’s writing is amazing. You motivated me to go back and read Grant’s autobiography. I haven’t done that yet either. But, wow, it did make me want to go back and read him.

Elizabeth Samet 38:01
Well, Grant has been my companion for a long time now. In fact, I just edited an edition of the memoirs. They’ve been very important to me. And I like to teach them as well. I just taught them in a, a Civil War literature class. And they’re very unusual for the period, and the way he writes about war, and also, about the way that he explores some of his own shortcomings and failure. When I was compiling this an–this anthology, there were moments when I thought the entire thing could be about; it could be an anthology about just learning from failure because there are so many more examples of it than there are success, I think, in the annals of world history. Grant’s in particular though, thinking about it, it’s a moment early in his career; the first time in command; he had been in combat before in the Mexican War, but he hadn’t really been in command of anyone. And this is the first time that he is in command and he faces a moment not unlike that of Fabius Maximus, where the culture in which he works sort of discourages taking stock of things, and waiting, and, and sending out actually a reconnaissance in this case to find out where his adversary is. But he says that he lacks the moral courage to call a halt. And so he goes after this confederate commander, and the confederate commander is just at camp. So nothing really happens there. But he, he says, takes from that, that he learns a valuable lesson that the enemy is just as afraid of him as he is of the enemy. And that’s one that stands him in good stead. But he doesn’t sort of celebrate this rashness that he, that he demonstrated. Instead, he reveals that to be a kind of failure of nerve.

Sean Murray 39:35
He reveals to his readers the emotional state, the fear that he felt as he was leading this group, and, and the, the self-doubt that plagued him at times, and how it could almost cripple you. If you let the fear of engagement the enemy really get to you, you could be crippled, and then he flips it around, and says, “And by the way, what I take from this is the enemy is feeling the same thing. And if I can emotionally control my fear and have my composure, my temperament as I lead; then, I’m going to have that advantage.”

Elizabeth Samet 40:11
He was very fortunate in discovering that he had great physical courage under fire. And his calm was, was remarkable, and I think inspired calm in others as well.

Sean Murray 40:22
The next section is about resisting the system, so talk a little bit about that.

Elizabeth Samet 40:26
Sort of envisioned this system as; this section, resisting the system as one where people come to a point where their principles can no longer accord with the system. And so they are forced to resist it in some way, in order to stay true to those principles.

Sean Murray 40:45
Yes, and in this section, you have a number of great writers and thinkers, who have resisted the system including Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. But the one that really impacted me was the story about Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. And it reveals a young man, who’s coming up in this oppressive system of slavery; yet, he realizes that he has the power within himself to break free from his bondage and become a free man, a free human being.

Elizabeth Samet 41:14
And the thing I like about this section, which comes from his narrative from 1845; that his first autobiography is that he, he figures this out, when he learns to read. He’s taught to read, and initially, anyway, by his mistress, as he calls her until the master says, “This is a terrible idea: once you teach Frederick to read, he will realize–he will be discontent. He will sort of figure out the system,” and, and Douglass admits that he didn’t really understand his own enslavement until he learned how to read. And thus, thought of himself as a human being for the first time, and it’s a very powerful realization. And it does make him discontent, and it makes realize ultimately–although, there are many setbacks along the way–that he must escape this bondage.

Sean Murray 42:08
Then, you move on to the subject of judgment and decision making, which is so important. And you choose for this section, a number of letters from Abraham Lincoln. The one that really stood out to me was the letter that President Lincoln wrote to General Grant during the Civil War where he admits to Grant, “You were right. I was wrong.” And it’s so refreshing to hear a leader say that.

Elizabeth Samet 42:33
I love that letter as well. And I, I think it reveals a lot about Lincoln’s leadership style. He did disagree. It was about the operations around Vicksburg. And Lincoln really wasn’t sure what Grant was up to as grant was trying to figure out the best way to take a fort. And Lincoln just said, you know, “I figured you knew your business better than I did. So I kept my reservations to myself for the most part.” But then what I love about this was that there’s no compulsion for him to admit this. It’s, it’s purely voluntary, right? There’s no, I mean, Grant would never know. And no one else would know. But he has enough confidence as a leader to admit that he’s wrong. And I think it really helped to cement what turned out to be a phenomenal working relationship between Lincoln and Grant that sustain them for the rest of the war.

Sean Murray 43:28
Your final section, Discipline, and Desire, and Letting Go, and the discipline to desire for me was about, you know, as a leader; as you achieve success; as you cultivate, perhaps, ambition; perhaps this will to, to go out and conquer in some way. You’ve got to be careful because when you stoke those flames, they can get out of control. And you have these cautionary tales. The big one in that section was he just took a whole play from Shakespeare and dropped it into anthology, you put Macbeth right there, bam! When you read Shakespeare, you realize that here’s someone who understood people; who understood culture; understood how people were motivated; wrote beautifully about how the world really works. Most of these, his great plays are tragedies. So they’re examples of what not to do; be careful; they’re warnings, you know? You can, as high as you are in life, or as close as you are to getting the throne, in this case with Macbeth, you know, be careful what you do, and what you wish for because it can lead down a very, very dark road.

Elizabeth Samet 44:32
So yeah, and I wanted to put a whole play in there because it demands a kind of attention that I’m trying to advocate for; a kind of deep attention, rather than, than putting it in excerpt; although, I do have excerpts from other Shakespeare plays along the way. I also put it in, I, I think, it’s not the play that most leadership courses would put in. I think King Lear tends to be a go-to Shakespeare text for leadership discussions, so I wanted to throw something different in there. And the reason is that I think Macbeth, it teaches us that ambition is a morally neutral attribute. I think sometimes we tend to condemn it. And then sometimes we tend to celebrate it. But it, it’s, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s, it’s what you make of it. And it’s, it’s the discipline you have in exerting it. And I think that Macbeth is such an interesting leader because he has, he has a lot of the attributes of a really phenomenal leader. And he knows his work. He is respected by all; he feels deeply kinship bonds and community. And I think as a result of that, that’s what makes it tragic; that he’s willing to betray all of these things. And he never–it’s never a question of not knowing all that he sacrifices. He’s not a sort of typical villain in that way. He absolutely knows the difference between right and wrong; between pursuing a virtuous path and a criminal one. And he chooses the latter and realizes I think fairly early on that he has, he’s just sort of lost the ability to turn back.

Sean Murray 46:08

Elizabeth Samet 46:09
And so that’s what makes it so powerful for me.

Sean Murray 46:11
Yeah, once once events start rolling, they get out of control. And it’s, well, a lot of blood shows up in that one. And then, the final section, you’ve had this little coda, which I thought was great called, Letting Go. If you think about your legacy as a leader, you know? We started at the very beginning around studying the system and finding our heroes, and finding the way, and learning from failure, and kind of going on this leadership journey. And then, what did the great writers say about when it’s time to let go?

Elizabeth Samet 46:40
So I was really interested at this point, you know, after what I hope was taking people on a journey. Beginning with studying the system, beginning with learning about those organizations of which we’re part, and of when, which we might hope to lead one day, and then thinking about this really hard thing, which is this, this overwhelming question of a legacy. And I think people sometimes get so consumed with it that they lose sight of what is actually in the best interest of the organization. So that it becomes about them; that becomes their story, rather than the organization’s story. And so how, I mean, the most elegant, most elegant way to let go I was sort of thinking about, and so I have some poems here about people, who, who don’t like co very easily. Queen Elizabeth returns in this. Just thinking about what it means to be–toward the end of one’s career, more of the chapter in one’s career. And that ultimate; that final responsibility of leaving an organization in an even stronger position than one found it.

Sean Murray 47:47
Yeah, this, the poem on Queen Elizabeth I–was the one that really stood out for me in that section. Inevitably, she declined. I’ll let the readers and the audience enjoy that one. To wrap things up, talk a little about there’s leaders out there that want to explore some of these texts; that want to get more out of the great thinkers and writers of our past and really capture that wisdom in some way. Do you have any advice? You know, it can be really overwhelming. It can be sometimes challenging to work through these texts. One thing that really helped me in this anthology was I never got bogged down in any one writer for too long. And if one of the selections that you put into the anthology didn’t speak to me, I was not afraid to just go to the next section. And I did, and sometimes I would go back and, “Oh, I skipped this one five times. Maybe I should eventually read it, you know? And I think I’ve read the whole thing now, but if, if I did it was because I jumped around three or four times and read several essays, three or four times before I went and read a writer that didn’t resonate with me right away.” But what, what–any advice for, for leaders that, you know, how can we use these great thinkers?

Elizabeth Samet 48:56
Well, I think your, your model here is a great one. I, I’m delighted to hear that you, you know, would reread some, and then neglect others, and, and that’s fine. Not every, not every piece in an anthology is going to speak to every reader. That’s the, I think the strength of, of an anthology. And I, I think to, to be able to read around in different sections is great. And then, as you’ve suggested some, some writers, you went and read more, right, with Montaigne, and, and things like that? I think the other, the other challenge I had as a teacher in making this anthology is that I love to luxury in long works. And I sometimes resist reading in excerpt. But I also realize that’s a sort of fundamental fact, and that’s sometimes our first introduction to a given work. So I tried to be as responsible as I could with the excerpts, and if they tantalize, and if you decide that you want to read more than I’ve offered some, you know, guidance along the way in terms of context for those individual excerpts that a reader might then pursue. But I,I think that given the time constraints many people face that sometimes reading an excerpt is the, is the way in. And I also think maybe the example that you gave of Seneca is the best one. What is this old Roman have to tell us? And I think that sometimes our tendency to think about, well, they couldn’t possibly know these people who live so long ago, we have a kind of–we’re very presentist today. And I think we have a sort of snobbery about the unenlightened people of the past, right? And, and we view our own world and our own challenges as unprecedented. And I think that’s to our detriment. And so part of my goal with this anthology was to suggest that, in fact, our challenges may look different from those of the past, but they, they have some fundamental continuities, and there is actually a lot that we might learn from thinking about the ways in which people, who did live in totally different times, faced those particular challenges. One of the words that my students use a lot as one of their criteria for whether they like something or not is, is that it’s relatable. And I think that we have sort of surrendered to that idea. So things to which we can relate in some way are good; things that we cannot relate to are bad. And I don’t think we will ever grow unless we plunge into worlds that we can’t initially relate to. And many of these things will seem very strange and weird to us. And I think you just have to have some patience, and wait around, and find those correspondences where we can.

Sean Murray 51:27
But you certainly open my eyes to new worlds; different worlds; different perspectives in this anthology. And I want to personally just thank you for putting it together. I want to encourage my listeners to, to pick it up. Or if not this anthology, pick up some of these great thinkers from the past. Try them out, build them into your practice of reflection and learning ’cause there’s so much wisdom that we can learn from the past. Thank you so much for being on The Good Life podcast!

Elizabeth Samet 51:55
Thanks, Sean! It was a great pleasure.

Outro 51:58
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