Certain Trumpets

by Garry Wills

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2158

While critics decry a lack of leadership, public opinion polls confirm that many Americans distrust those who are entrusted to lead them. Meanwhile, universities and colleges promote their students as leaders in the making, and, especially in politics, there is no lack of people who claim that they can provide the needed direction. Thus, leadership is a American buzzword.

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What is leadership, and what, in particular, is good leadership in a democracy like the United States? Such questions are crucial because the idea of good leadership contains an important ambiguity. Good leadership frequently gets equated with effective leadership. Effective leadership, however, may or may not be good—as least insofar as the term “good” contains ethical meanings that make one evaluate goals and the means used to achieve them.

Promising to create more effective leaders, though not necessarily good ones in a moral sense, various how-to books accumulate every year. While leadership is also its concern, Garry Wills’sCertain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders does not belong to that genre. No simplistic leadership manual, this book meditates deeply on the qualities of intelligence and character that good and effective leadership requires.

Not all of Wills’s book is about leadership in the United States, but it clearly focuses on the American scene. For that reason, Wills resists a typical American desire for quick-fix recipes and shows instead the importance of study about the conditions that make leadership possible and necessary. Such study attends to historical circumstances, factors of timing and opportunity, and relationships among people, places, and powers.

Wills has long had a knack for writing prize-winning books about American life. In previous works such as Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), Nixon Agonistes (1970), and Inventing America (1978), he deployed a masterful combination of disciplined scholarship, philosophical reflection, and irresistible story telling. Certain Trumpets employs those resources again, adding to them insightful spins of imagination that ask unconventional questions. What, for example, do Eleanor Roosevelt and George Washington have in common? How might they differ from two other examples— Adlai Stevenson and Madonna—who have some striking, if heretofore unnoticed, similarities?

Certain Trumpets raises such questions because Wills turns his book into a gallery. With metaphorical trumpet calls providing background, Wills’s gallery contains thirty-two biographical sketches. These sketches are paired by type and “antitype,” the latter category containing people who clarify a leadership type by illustrating flaws and failures. Thus, Wills takes George Washington’s antitype to be Oliver Cromwell, a less successful revolutionary. Eleanor Roosevelt’s is Nancy Reagan. Madonna, on the other hand, plays antitype to artistic leader Martha Graham, while Adlai Stevenson appears in contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Wills’s pairings illustrate sixteen kinds of leadership. They range from what he calls the charismatic (the biblical King David) and diplomatic (Andrew Young) to the rhetorical (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and intellectual (Socrates). In each case, Wills fortifies his analyses with insights from theorists such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Max Weber, and Carl von Clausewitz—three individuals judged by Wills to be “the most original and influential in their writings on leadership.”

Many things happen in Wills’s book, but far from exhausting the possibilities, his eclectic collection suggests that the list of leaders in the book’s table of contents could go on and on. Styled impressionistically, each biographical miniature includes fascinating, little-known details that enrich Wills’s interpretations of the leading lives he depicts. The result is a historical and ethical understanding of major themes contained in what his subtitle identifies as “the call of leaders.”

Wills’s well-crafted choice of a title focuses the book’s perspective in a few words, especially when one notes the epigraph that follows the title page. This epigraph raises a question asked by St. Paul in one of the New Testament’s letters to the Corinthians: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

In Wills’s use of trumpet imagery, multiple meanings can be heard. Uncertain sounds—confusion, ambiguity, conflict, dissonance—are all around. They leave people puzzled, perplexed, even paralyzed. Such uncertainty makes us wonder what to do; it even makes us wonder whether anything can be done to improve our circumstances decisively. By contrast, leadership depends, first, on hearing certain trumpets.

To be a leader, a person has to discern something akin to a trumpet’s call. A stirring is felt, an idea forms, that something important needs to be done. Awareness dawns that what needs doing will not get done unless the person who hears a certain trumpet also follows its call. In this way, a leader is a follower, and what is followed is the beckoning of a possibility that can direct a person’s life and make that life one of direction, too. By hearing “certain trumpets,” then, leaders concentrate their attention, focus their vision, and strive to find paths of action that cut through bewilderment and bedlam to achieve a desired aim.

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The trumpets that call leaders have to sound certain in another important manner as well. Leadership always happens in particular times and places where specific needs exist and definite actions are required. In addition to far-seeing and inclusive vision, leadership involves specificity and even specialization. Thus, since no one can do everything, there must be leaders plural. Leaders, moreover, will be ineffective unless they discern that certain trumpets call them to define the limits of what one can and cannot do. Failure to hear certain trumpets in that way produces the disasters that result from reaching too far by focusing too little, or the disappointments that occur from achieving too little by not reaching far enough.

“Determination, focus, a clear goal, a sense of priorities”—Wills contends that individuals must embody all those qualities for leadership to exist. Yet, necessary though they are, such characteristics are not sufficient to make one a leader. “We easily forget the first and all-encompassing need,” Wills reminds his readers. “The leader most needs followers. When those are lacking, the best ideas, the strongest will, the most wonderful smile have no effect.”

While effective leadership depends on careful listening to certain trumpets, it hinges no less on the ability to sound a call so that others will also hear the trumpet and respond. A leader’s personal agenda, for example, is not enough to create the bond that holds leaders and followers together. The agenda must be one with which others can identify. It must fire the imagination, inspire loyalty, speak to one’s sense of what is right, and extend meaning in a group. Thus, Wills explains, the call of leaders requires not only an articulated vision that others can share but also an understanding that the vision will not be shared unless the leader discerns consistently that everything the leader wants to do depends on followers.

In Wills’s judgment, for example, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson fell short as a leader because “he considered it below him, or wrong, to scramble out among the people and ask whatthey wanted. Roosevelt grappled voters to him. Stevenson shied off from them.” As a result, the White House eluded Stevenson. Madonna, on the other hand, has never shied off from anything or anybody. Nevertheless, Wills finds her related to Stevenson as a leadership antitype. Enjoying a following for a time, Stevenson campaigned and Madonna entertains, but their celebrity seems destined to leave no enduring legacy.

Eleanor Roosevelt never campaigned for herself, though she did for many others, including her presidential husband. No one would have mistaken her for an entertainer. Yet, unlike her antitype, Nancy Reagan, a whole nation came to see and admire Eleanor Roosevelt as a reformer, and the causes she served—education, civil rights, greater freedom for women—live on. “Many,” Wills notes, “succumbed to the spell of her earnestness and joined her in the work that always seemed to multiply around her.” Eleanor Roosevelt heard, embodied, and amplified the call of leadership. So did George Washington. He forged a national vision that people wanted to rally around, insisted persuasively that the future of the United States depended on public virtue, and then, when the time was right, he stepped aside to make good his belief that the responsibilities of leadership must be shared for democracy to be healthy.

Two more important themes emerge from Wills’s analysis. First, leadership and influence are not the same. Many people exert influence but are not necessarily leaders. The difference is that a leader’s work requires a team of people to complete it. Influence, however, can be exerted by an individual who labors more or less alone and who does not depend on followers to achieve a shared goal. Next, when Wills stresses that leadership cannot exist outside of a leader-follower linkage, he identifies what he takes to be the most time-consuming part of leadership, especially in a democracy: While the follower needs to understand the leader, it is even more imperative that the leader understand the follower, for “followers ‘have a say’ in what they are being led to.” Leaders ignore this reality at everyone’s peril and especially their own, because without the loyalty of followers, leaders will be leaders no more. Instead, they will eventually find themselves stripped of their authority.

“To sound a certain trumpet,” Wills says, “does not mean just trumpeting one’s own certitudes. It means sounding a specific call to specific people capable of response.” No part of Wills’s book is more important than the emphasis he places on the relationship between leaders and followers. On the one hand, Wills argues, it will no longer do to accept a traditional view that identifies a leader simply as “a superior person, to whom inferiors should submit.” Especially in a democracy, that understanding of leadership is a mistake because it obscures the dynamic give-and-take between leaders and followers. On the other hand, Wills recognizes that such give-and-take can produce “leaders” undeserving of the name because they become little more than weather vanes whose points of direction are determined by the fickle winds of popular opinion.

At least in a democracy, trumpets that dictate or coerce will sound an illusory certainty. Such trumpets are unlikely to sustain good leaders for long because of the dissonance and cacophony their sounds eventually produce. Yet vacillating trumpets sound no better. Attuned to fad and fashion, their notes lack direction. They stray off key and drift away from the score. Leadership moving in any of those directions ends up unworthy of the name.

Pursuit of a goal in common is the bond that links leaders and followers together. Take that sharing away and followers dwindle as leadership dissolves. Yet with so much depending on the sharing of goals, how does that bonding occur? Again, Wills offers no simple formula because none exists. Instead, his sound response amplifies and nuances his understanding of how leadership works. Wills stresses, for example, that leadership often is not the result of an individual’s focusing vision alone. As his interpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrates, leaders can be called by the very persons and communities who become their followers. In these cases, would-be followers create leaders by luring them from their midst and thrusting opportunity upon them, by conferring responsibility even when the person who becomes a leader might not have anticipated or desired such authority. Nor do groups and communities always do this consciously. There are situations in which time, circumstance, and fortune conspire with group needs and personal ambitions to move a person to the center of the stage where leaders and followers interact.

Leaders are called by circumstances, by those who become their followers, by their own vision. At the same time, those who lead must also call. They must call for their followers’ dedication, loyalty, courage. Specifically, Wills emphasizes that leaders must give a call that is answerable, which in human affairs is not necessarily the most noble call. As the leadership of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin illustrates, such calls can be disastrous. Wills does not say as much as he could or should about destructive leaders, especially those who inflict massive suffering and death. Overall, however, his message is unmistakably ethical. Succinctly defining the leader as “one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leader and followers,” Wills recognizes that unachievable perfection must not become the enemy of achievable good. Lest tragedy and misery get chances they do not deserve, ways must be found to achieve the good that can be done. That standard measures whether a leader’s moral stature rises or falls.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. May 8, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

Choice. XXXII, September, 1994, p. 160.

The Economist. CCCXXXII, July 2, 1994, p. 84.

Foreign Affairs. LXXIII, September, 1994, p. 142.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 7, 1994, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, April 24, 1994, p. 14.

Newsweek. CXXIII, April 25, 1994, p. 67.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 21, 1994, p. 60.

Time. CXLIII, May 9, 1994, p. 80.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, April 24, 1994, p. 3.

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