Six Appeal

“Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” by Henry A. Kissinger, Penguin Press, 528 pages, $36

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The stark book jacket on “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” uses stately Caslon type in black and blue on white in the same design as two of the author’s previous 18 books (“On China,” 2011, and “World Order,” 2014). There’s no hint, no image, of the studies’ super six.   

Open the book, and former secretary of state and national-security advisor Henry Kissinger explains why five men and one woman comprise his pantheon of achievement: 

“They mattered because they transcended the circumstances they inherited and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible.” 

His 19th published title is an authoritative assessment of the half-dozen personalities and, with its adherence to providing context, also is a history of 20th Century crises, wars, and upheavals in social and political norms. 

Who are the six?  Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. 

He knew them all. 

And “Leadership” offers his personal and professional perspective on their development as leaders. He does not fawn. His appreciation of their impact is obvious, but he is aware that a dutiful historian ought to note warts along with warmth. During (and after) their tenures not everyone enjoyed universal admiration, and not every reader will agree with the author’s roster. 

Yet the six were only human, and each “faced resistance – often carried out for honorable motives and sometimes by distinguished opposing figures. Such is the price of making history.”

The front-row insights are valuable for anyone interested in how the last century’s major decisions endure, and in form the book is a Kissinger of depth: 528 pages including 46 pages of notes and a 32-page index.  “Leadership” is occasionally dense but worth the effort to read because of details only the 99-year-old Kissinger knows. (He turns 100 in May.) Kissinger doesn’t just say somebody was bold. He shows how and why. 

“Facts are rarely self-explanatory,” he writes in the epilogue, “their significance and interpretation depend on context and relevance.” The book also dips into biography and definitions. 

For example, Kissinger says “most leaders are not visionary but managerial” (and that’s not a bad thing)., and he believes there are two types of leaders: 

Prophets such as Joan of Arc and Gandhi, and statesmen such as presidents Roosevelt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. The types are fluid, he says; both De Gaulle and Sadat touched on prophecy at times. His six touch the statesperson category and share traits: Being bold and decisive – and occasionally divisive. Having an ability to tell hard truths. Knowing when they want to be alone. Having senses of reality and vision. 

Who in “Leadership” gets the most ink? Nixon’s the one. The 79 pages about Kissinger’s former boss top DeGaulle’s 73, Thatcher’s and Sadat’s 72, Adenauer’s 46 and Lee’s 42. Quantity aside, here – in the book’s order – are the qualities that put them on Kissinger’s kindred list:

Adenauer’s humility

As a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 84th Infantry Division in 1943, Kissinger saw firsthand how the “dominant attitude of the German people was overbearing.” 

In contrast, 10 years earlier the then-mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, had snubbed Hitler and lost his job after the Fuhrer was elected. He returned to the mayor’s office in 1945 with a mode of strategy in which Germans should trade self-pity for submission, which he saw as a virtue. He understood that his country’s post-war “temporary inequality of conditions was the precondition to equality of status.” Also, he “never wavered from affirming the moral obligations imposed on Germany by the Nazi past.”

Kissinger and Adenauer met in 1957. He was courtly, and his world was “guided by principle and immune to slogans or pressure.” He died in 1967, but “great leadership is more than an evocation of transitory exultation,” Kissinger says. “It requires the capacity to inspire and to sustain vision over time.” Kissinger’s says successors from Brandt to Merkel maintained Adenauer’s foresight.

Nixon’s equilibrium

Richard Nixon’s decision to hire Kissinger, who had “a record of opposing him,” illustrates the president’s “generosity of spirit and his willingness to break with conventional political thinking.” 

His embrace of geo-politics shows “his significance as a statesman” and delivered “a seminal impact on the foreign policy of the period and its aftermath” He “reshaped a failing world order at the height of the Cold War,” from Vietnam to China and the Middle East and the Soviet Union. 

Look past the Watergate “tragedy” to today. The world’s “swings between reckless triumphalism and righteous abdication signal danger for America’s position in world,” he says, and you might not disagree with the suggestion that U.S. foreign policy could use Nixon’s combination of realism and creativity.

De Gaulle’s will

he chapter observes Charles De Gaulle from World War I through his taking leadership roles in 1940 in the Free France movement “to rescue it from the consequences of a national catastrophe” and in 1958 as president of the Fifth Republic.

He became a giant. The “colossus behind the veil” was a man with a commanding and assertive style, an “illusionist” who proved that “politics was not the art of the possible but the art of the willed.” He can still be cast as a caricature, a delusional egoist “perpetually aggrieved over slights real and imagined.” 

But in statesmanship he is exalted, Kissinger says. “No {other} 20th Century leader demonstrated greater gifts of intuition.” 

Sadat’s transcendence

Unlike others profiled in “Leadership,” Anwar Sadat’s successes are conceptual, Kissinger says, and were stopped short by the Egyptian president’s assassination in 1981. 

The Nobel prize-willing Sadat’s major success, Egypt’s peace with Israel, “is remembered by few, and his deeper moral purpose is ignored by almost all” – despite its legacy in Israel’s recent accords with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. 

Sadat was not always a man of peaceful action, especially during his revolutionary, anti-British days, but prison isolation changed his heart. There “he had cultivated the confidence to question his earlier convictions,” Kissinger says. And his boldness in trying to stop war was “a historic modification in Egypt’s pattern of being, and a new order in the Middle East.”

Lee’s excellence

Others in this book presided over nations with years of history. But in 1965 Lee Kuan Yew became president of Singapore, a new nation with “no political past except as an imperial subject.” He conceived a future that turned “a poverty-ridden city into a world-class economy,” and his fans included Nixon and Thatcher. 

Yes, the city-state of Singapore continues to be authoritarian, which “was not Lee’s goal – it was the means to an end.” (Kissinger himself believes Singapore’s key issue is “whether continuing economic and technological progress will lead to a democratic and humanistic transition.”)

His legacy is “a testament to the possibility of evoking progress and sustainable order out of the least promising of conditions” and how to encourage “comprehension and coexistence” among diverse groups.

Thatcher’s conviction

Like the other leaders in “Leadership,” Margaret Thatcher did not come from the upper class. Yet she defined the era in which Britain became “to the world, a newly confident nation, and to America, a valued partner in the late Cold War.” 

Even Kissinger refers to her as the Iron Lady of the Western world, and he recalls when her “wave after wave of prime ministerial vehemence broke across the dinner table” at an event. But her tough image and inner strength belied a charm that made her a “treasured” friend. “To our very last visit, I found her unfailingly gracious, considerate and dignified.” 

The prime minister challenged convention and altered rules of debate, he says, in her Conservative Party and in diplomacy. In 1975, Kissinger confesses, he had figured Thatcher would never last politically. “My evaluation of her character proved more enduring.”  

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).


“Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” by Henry A. Kissinger, Penguin Press, 528 pages, $36