Four Great Reads to Make You a Great Leader

The Center staff picks books

By Alex Davies, Center Coordinator

Here at the Colin Powell Center, we’re all about teaching young people to be leaders. As much as we emphasize the value of learning by doing, there’s plenty to be gained from others’ experiences.

With that in mind, I asked the Center staff to select one book they appreciate for its lessons in life and leadership. It may be a bit late in the summer to get through all of these before school starts:

Derrick Bell at the Powell Center
Derrick Bell at the Colin Powell Center in 2008.


Derrick Bell's Silent Covenent

1. Director of Student Leadership and College Access Kamilah Briscoe on Derek Bell’s Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform:

I specifically recommend pages 97-107, for a very brief window into Derek Bell’s experience as a young NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney in Mississippi in 1964.

I love it because it’s not the familiar, linear story about a young, idealistic attorney whose single-minded courage and conviction defeats a dangerous and enormous enemy.  Quite the opposite, it’s an honest account of a civil rights leader who does heroic work in spite of a wide array of doubts about his abilities and even about the ethics of the movement itself.  It’s about how leaders handle uncertainty, what gives them pause, and how complicated it is to be steadfast.

2. Program Coordinator for Colin Powell Fellowship Michael Busch on David Halberstam’s The Children

I refer back frequently to The Children, an extraordinary account of the founding of SNCC, and a book that profiles the emergence of leaders like John Lewis, Marion Barry, Jim Bevel, Diane Nash, and Curtis Murphy. Throughout, you get a wonderful sense of, and some important lessons from, these young revolutionaries who mobilized their fight against racism around a commitment to non-violent civil disobedience and brilliant strategy and tactics for organizing young people in the deep south.

It’s a hulk of a book, but one I would recommend to any young person thinking of a life committed to leadership in the public realm.

3. Communications Coordinator Alex Davies on Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert M
oses and the Fall of New York:

Caro’s famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of urban planner Robert Moses has much to teach anyone interested in public service. Moses, never elected to any office, accumulated the power to control all public building projects in New York City. He is largely responsible for the City’s current infrastructure and the impoverished state of the MTA.

Any time I enjoy a day at Jones Beach or curse the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I reflect on what Caro reveals about Moses, and how power can be used to impact others’ lives, for good or ill.
Photo by Frank Worsley

4. Director of Publications Maura Christopher on accounts of Ernest Shackleton’s leadership during the shipwreck of the Endurance in Antarctica:

In 1915, on the voyage for a trans-Antarctic expedition, ice encased the ship of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. The accounts of his leadership under truly harrowing circumstances make fascinating reading. His legendary ability to sustain high morale among his men, settle disputes fairly, and take life-saving action under the riskiest conditions have made him the subject of leadership case studies and books such as Leadership Lessons from the Antarctic by Arthur Ainsburg. But I think the accounts of his voyage in context are more compelling, including the concise, read-in-one-sitting Shipwreck at the Bottom of World by Jennifer Armstrong.

Read about Alex and our other contributors here.

Author: Colin Powell School

"Social Thought with a Public Purpose" The Colin Powell School houses the activities in the Social Sciences at the City College of New York, connecting education and research to critical public concerns. Rooted in the Harlem community, the school is global in its diversity, outlook, and reach.

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