A look at “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy” by Henry Kissinger

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy by Henry Kissinger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The new book by Henry Kissinger looks at six historical figures and the leadership skills that they brought to bear on the rather monumental problems they faced in the post World War II era. I took a look at some of the reviews before I bought the book and will need to dispense with some of the issues raised in those reviews, as they are a constant when dealing with all things Kissinger.

We always will get a substantial group of reviewers that indicate that the book was terrible because it includes some self serving revisionism by Kissinger, and that in any case he is a war criminal etc, etc. Relying on the review of someone describing Kissinger in those terms will not bring a potential reader a fair estimation of the book. I discard those reviews despite having some real disagreements with Kissinger/Nixon policies in Indochina, and with some of his actions as National Security advisor and Secretary of State to President Nixon. Disagreements do not take away from Kissinger’s underlying brilliance, and have nothing to do with books by Kissinger, or about him.

This book looks at six leaders from the Post World War II era, with Kissinger describing a specific type of leadership trait in each that he believes produced groundbreaking results for the countries they led. His observations, in my view, are insightful, and bring some important concepts on leadership forward that have practical meaning for current and future leaders.

Kissinger has highlighted the career and leadership traits of:

Konrad Adenauer (The Strategy of Humility)
Charles DeGaulle (The Strategy of Will)
Richard Nixon (Strategy of Equilibrium)
Anwar Sadat (Strategy of Transcendence)
Lee Kuan Yew (Strategy of Excellence)
Margaret Thatcher (Strategy of Conviction)

Kissinger knew, and in some fashion worked with, each of these individuals. In reviewing the book Admiral James Stavridis said:

“This is an extraordinary book, one that braids together two through lines in the long and distinguished career of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The first is grand strategy: No practical geopolitical thinker has more assuredly mastered the way the modern global system works or how nations use the tools of statecraft to bend an often-resistant world to their will. But Mr. Kissinger is also an astute observer of the personal element in strategy—the art and science of leadership, or how, on the executive level, “decisions [are] made, trust earned, promises kept, a way forward proposed.”
Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2022 “Follow the Leaders” James Stavridis

To me that snippet from the review gives us a great overview of what this book is about. Different problems, and differing approaches to problem-solving unique to these leaders and the specific time in history that thrust them into leadership positions. After some biographical information about each Kissinger gives us a great view on how each of these leaders contributed in areas that required extraordinary skills to navigate, and the leadership qualities that helped them to succeed. Kissinger does not sugarcoat deficiencies but hyper-criticism is not the point of the book. Kissinger ties it together with a last chapter aptly titled “Conclusions” that brings additional historical insights and observations.

As you read Kissinger you understand his views, and how those views color his analysis. His chapter on Nixon, the strategy of equilibrium, fairly well establishes a core Kissinger value. Equilibrium is a constant theme for Kissinger, more so than the oft-described philosophy of “realism” used to describe him frequently.

Each one of these individuals contributed to the new world order developed after the calamity of World War II. Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the West German government that arose after the war, gave a speech that would give an idea of where he would steer the German people.

“Criticizing Germany’s conduct under Hitler. Adenauer asked an audience of thousands in the severely damaged main hall of the University of Cologne how it was possible that the Nazis had come to power. They had then committed ‘great crimes’, he said, and the Germans could find their way toward a better future only by coming to terms with their past. Such an effort would be necessary for their country’s revival. From this perspective, Germany’s attitude after the Second World War needed to be the opposite of its reaction to the First. Instead of indulging in self-pitying nationalism once again, Germany should seek its future within a unifying Europe. Adenauer was proclaiming a strategy of humility.”

Leadership, Kissinger, Henry p 9

Adenauer, in one of his final conversations with Kissinger, highlighted a true leadership conundrum. Adenauer had, through his leadership, steered post war Germany towards reconciliation and European integration, with special emphasis on repair of the relationship with France. This was not always a consensus view but Adenauer had steered the Federal Republic towards it on a long term basis. This conversation, after Adenauer’s retirement, brought forward the question to Kissinger (in response to Kissinger asking him to evaluate the existing leadership of West Germany)
“Are any leaders still able to conduct a genuine long range policy? Is true leadership still possible today?”
Leadership, Kissinger, Henry p 42

That question was posed in 1967 and is still a bona fide concern in the democracies today.

Adenauer and Lee Kwan Yew would likely be the least recognizable of the six figures, and in some respects the most significant, in terms of studying effective leaders. Lee Kwan Yew should be required study for all those that aspire to political leadership. His building of the city-state of Singapore is a textbook example of success not being reliant on size. His methodology would not always pass a test of democratic norms, but his strong emphasis on good, corruption free governance, excellence in business and an adherence to the rule of law brought real results. Kissinger cited some pretty impressive statistics.

“An assessment of Lee’s legacy must begin with the extraordinary growth of Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product from $517 in 1965 to $11,900 in 1990 and $60,000 at present (2020.)”

Leadership, Kissinger, Henry p 313

Of course Kissinger is not an economist so we get an examination of Lee from a foreign policy point of view. Kissinger has strong admiration for the balancing act that Lee performed between China, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Kissinger admires Lee’s devotion to “order” and the way he strategically balanced his foreign policy in a multi-polar world. (Equilibrium?) Lee was a truly fascinating leader worthy of more study.

Kissinger, as mentioned, did not dwell on the negative, but managed to provide balance, with an occasional wry observation that makes a point with a bit of humor. In speaking of a dispute between Charles de Gaulle and Marshall Petain over literary credit on a post World War I book, Kissinger observed:

“The capacity for gratitude not being among de Gaulle’s most highly developed traits….”

Leadership, Kissinger, Henry p 58

Kissinger’s relationship with Sadat may be one of the most important, in a sense of real accomplishment, by both men. Kissinger acknowledges a truth that was highlighted in Martin Indyk’s book “Master of the Game,” which was that he initially dismissed Sadat, not considering him to be a first rate leader, anticipating that he would be a short termer. That misjudgment was a contributing factor in the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war launched by Sadat and Hafez al-Assad against Israel. Kissinger does manage to stick in a very indirect criticism of a piece of the Jimmy Carter Middle East policy, due to the inclusion of the Soviets, but concedes that Sadat took that policy and in leapfrogging it ended up in Jerusalem.

The chapters on the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon will of course bring some criticism but are worthy and well done. I did not fully agree with the characterization of the Thatcher policy on Northern Ireland but that did not detract from my understanding and appreciating the larger points made. As always with Nixon Kissinger does not hesitate to acknowledge the flaws but highlights some of the major accomplishments of the Nixon Administration on foreign policy. Self interested? Maybe a bit, but the Nixon Presidency is worthy of plenty of discussion, and has some impacts that are still with us today.

In the Admiral Stavridis review he regrets that Kissinger did not make the book longer by including some other figures such as Deng of China and Bismarck. I agree, but would also include Zhou Enlai, who Kissinger has described as one of the most impressive men he has ever met. Even at his age he is still producing impressive works of literature that impart valuable insights. You do not have to agree with everything Kissinger believes to glean value from those insights. Highly recommended.

‘Leadership’ Review: Tales From a Global Chessboard – WSJ

View all my reviews

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