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“Leading Minds” Book by Howard Gardner


The book, “Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership”, has been authored by Howard Gardner, “Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and one of the founders of Project Zero at the Harvard University” (Gardner, 1996). Published by Basic Books, the first edition of the book appeared on June 14, 1996. In this book, Howard Gardner, in collaboration with Emma Laskin, addresses the issue of leadership from an altogether different perspective by taking into account one of its important components – the mind. A developmental psychologist that he is, Howard gives a psychological insight into the factors that hinder the development of leadership and how to facilitate its growth and sustenance.

The primary aim of this report is to provide a deeper understanding of the underlying theme of the book “Leading Minds” as well as to analyze the author’s point of view and how the subject matter has been presented. Moreover, it also aims at evaluating the effectiveness of the theme by ascertaining its practical implications.

Synopsis of the book

This highly absorbing and informative book written by Howard Gardner is a study in leadership from the point of view of the highest echelon of human thought- the human mind. As Gardner remarks in the very Introduction to the book,

Our understanding of the nature and processes of leadership is most likely to be enhanced as we come to understand better the arena in which leadership necessarily occurs—namely, the human mind (Gardner, 1996).

However, Gardner is not only concerned with the mind of the leaders but also with that of the followers. Thus, this book by Gardner is an analysis of the characteristics that identify the mind of the leaders and how the leaders fashion the minds of the followers.

There are three parts to this book apart from the preface to the paperback edition. The first part of the book is titled “A Framework for leadership” which proposes the primary thesis of the author. Gardner argues that the key to leadership is the creation of exceptional stories. As observed by him in this book, “Leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate” (Gardner, 1996). Here, he likens the leader to that of a creator, a storyteller, and most importantly, one who is a living exponent of the story. Moreover, effective communication of stories is what Gardner stresses upon in this context.

The second part is a consolidation of 11 mini-biographies of persons who, according to Gardner, have displayed exemplary leadership qualities in their respective fields. They have been broadly classified into two categories- those displaying direct leadership by engaging in direct action as well as those displaying indirect leadership by influencing others to view the world from the leaders’ point of view. Gardner displays a cognitive approach when analyzing the leaders that include eminent scholars like Margaret Mead and Robert Oppenheimer, organizational leaders like Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, George C. Marshall, and Pope John XXIII as well as highly acclaimed leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Martin Luther King Jr. Gardner also includes a renowned educationist, Robert Maynard Hutchins (Gardner, 1996).

The third part of the book concentrates on Mahatma Gandhi and Jean Monnet with an emphasis on “leadership that looks forward” (Gardner, 1996). Drawing upon the inferences made from the case studies of the above personalities, the final chapter summarizes the message that the author seeks to convey regarding leadership.

Through this book, Gardner seeks to convey the message that it is not sufficient for the leaders to be storytellers, the audience should be able to relate to those stories and should be inspired to do something effective. In other words, leaders should be able to convey stories of identity. In the words of Gardner, a story is

a basic cognitive form…a fundamental part of the leader’s vocation…And I suggest, further, that it is stories of identity …that constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal (Gardner, 1996).

Analysis and Evaluation

In the book, “Leading Minds”, Gardner approaches the subject of leadership from a point of view that is rare in leadership literature. Apart from presenting an altogether novel perspective of leadership, this book is also highly informative as it draws on extensive research and study. The value of the book lies in the fact that it not only addresses the issue of leadership from a psychological point of view but also advocates the need for change (Fairholm, 2004). Change is another theme that runs parallel to the main theme.

In this book, Gardner combines the concept of the leader as the living exponent of his/her story with that of the concept of the “five-year-old mind’ (Gardner, 1996) to convey the effectiveness of the role of the leader. The underlying message is that leaders should be able to tell stories that appeal to the mind of even a five-year-old. The reference to a five-year-old mind emanates from the fact that they “possess a very refined understanding of the world that is emotionally profound and concrete” (Avolio, 2008). Thus, making an impact on such a mind is hugely challenging. This is an interesting way of approaching the topic of leadership. Even though the book presents ideas that contribute to an overwhelming reading experience, the framework of the book sometimes appears a bit vague. This possibly explains the fact that it sometimes becomes difficult to establish a link between the ideas presented in the first part and the case studies discussed in the second part. The lack of a solid framework often renders an element of incoherence to the book.

Howard Gardner, himself, is a fantastic storyteller and his storytelling quality gets amply reflected in this book as well. This is possibly the reason why this book calls for engaging reading. However, in comparison to some of the other notable books by Gardner like “Creating Minds” (1993), “The Unschooled Mind” (1991), “The Disciplined Mind” (1995), etc. this book may appear to be less compelling and thought-provoking to some.


Over the years, the subject of leadership has been dealt with from different perspectives. However, the emphasis on the leader as a creator, storyteller as well as one embodying the stories, gives a unique direction to the efforts made at developing and sustaining effective leaders. Indeed, this book does not emphasize educational leadership in particular. But, the leaders in educational institutes can benefit a lot from the learning theories proposed by Howard Gardner in this book.


Avolio, B. (2008). The Dawning of a New Era for Genuine Leadership Development. Public Administration Review, 68(2), 197-238.

Fairholm, M. (2004). Different Perspectives on the Practice of Leadership. Public Administration Review, 64(5), 577-590.

Gardner, H. (1996). Leading minds: an anatomy of leadership. New York: BasicBooks.


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