Looking at leadership through the eyes of John W. Gardner: Post 1

I started this project with the intention of understanding the decline of citizen participation in democracy and the increase in the focus on and importance of strong leadership throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by conducting a literature review of leadership literature during that time period. This was a rather daunting, slightly unrealistic task, so, after receiving guidance from my research advisor, I am tweaking my project slightly. Instead of conducting a scattered literature review of all literature on leadership from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I am reviewing the literature of John W. Gardner – a psychologist; a teacher; a former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; a civic leader; a champion of social issues. Studying the writings of John Gardner works well for this project because his life spans the time period I want to examine (1912-2002), he wrote about leadership, and he reflects well the public opinion of the time because he helped to create public opinion. So far, I have researched the life of John Gardner and read three of his writings (Individual Differences in Level of Aspiration; On Leadership; Excellence, can we be equal and excellent too?); I will expound upon each below.

John W. Gardner was born in Los Angeles on October 8, 1912. He attended Stanford University for both undergraduate and graduate school, and he received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1938. After receiving his Ph.D., Gardner moved with his wife Aida to Connecticut to teach psychology at Connecticut College for Women. He taught at Connecticut College for Women for two years and at Mount Holyoke College for two years. In 1942, he moved to Washington D.C. to work as an analyst of enemy propaganda broadcasts in Latin American, and, later, he joined the Marine Corp and worked for the Office of Strategic Services. In 1946, Gardner joined the Carnegie Corporation and worked there for almost twenty years. During this time, Gardner pushed heavily for education reform and improvement. In 1955, he became the president of the Carnegie Corporation and head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He held these positions until 1965 when he was asked by President Johnson to be Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. As Secretary of HEW, Gardner oversaw the passage and implementation of Johnson’s “Great Society.” Gardner resigned from his post as Secretary in 1968 because of his disapproval of the Vietnam War. Later in 1968, Gardner founded and was Chairman/CEO of the Urban Coalition – a coalition of business and labor leaders who wanted to address poverty and race. In 1970, he left the Urban Coalition to found Common Cause. Common Cause was an advocacy group that wanted open and accountable legislative and governmental institutions. In 1978, he left Common Cause to become Chairman of the Commission on White House Fellowships. In 1980, Gardner co-founded Independent Sector, an organization that helped coordinate and advocate for the vast array of non-profit groups. He wrote extensively, especially in the later year of his life. In total, Gardner published one Ph.D. dissertation, eight books, and over thirty journal articles. His legacy lives on through his writings, the institutions he formed, and the John Gardner Fellowships at UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Individual Differences in Level of Aspiration was John Gardner’s Ph.D. dissertation. Through his experimentation, he hoped to determine specific personality traits that will predict whether people will have higher aspirations or lower aspirations for completing tasks correctly. He also, secondarily, wanted to improve upon experiments already conducted that focused on determining level of aspiration. Gardner set up an experiment where he had boys who were part of a state childhood development study do multiple trials of different activities. He then told the boys how they did on the trial and asked them to guess how well they would do on the next trial. He had the scores for each trial pre-determined and told every boy these pre-determined scores instead of their real scores. The scores went up, went down, and plateaued at various intervals to see how the boys would react when they were doing better, doing worse, and doing the same. After collecting the data from these trials, Gardner sent surveys asking about the personality traits of each boy to psychiatrists who had studied the boys through the state childhood development study, who were thus familiar with the boys’ personality traits. Gardner hoped to find a correlation between how the boys guessed they would do on the next trial (their levels of aspiration) and specific personality traits they had; he did not find a correlation with any specific personality trait. The one success of his experiment was that he structured it better than any other experiment testing for level of aspiration; he was able to hold more variables constant and take out some of the biases of other experiments.

After reading his first writing, I decided to skip to his last, On Leadership, to give perspective to the books in the middle. As the name would imply, On Leadership is a book about leadership – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is Gardner’s belief that leadership is mostly good and is completely necessary if society is to continue functioning. He says that rule of the masses would be too chaotic and would actually be detrimental to individual freedoms. In the book, Gardner goes through basically everything about leadership – what is a leader, characteristics of good leaders, characteristics of bad leaders, how leadership functions in our society, leader-constituent relationships. The thing that seemed most pertinent to me was the leader-constituent relationships. Gardner feels that leaders must look after the best interest of their constituents and of society. He also believes that constituents need to make their needs heard and hold their leaders accountable for those needs. Though he believes that the needs of the common man are extremely important and should be regarded as such, there is no indication that he thinks the common man should (or can) solve those needs; instead, the common man should tell his needs to his leader and have the leader solve the problem. In a governmental sense, this would correspond to a paternalistic government for the people instead of a government of the people.

Last, but not least, I read Excellence: can we be equal and excellent too? which was Gardner’s next big work after his dissertation. It was published in 1961 and focuses, mostly, on education, looking at the problems of what to do with gifted students, should everyone go to college, standardized testing, elite intellectuals, motivation, etc. He does include a section on leadership in Excellence, but it is very short and did not provide much information on leadership besides saying that intellectuals need to take more leadership roles if society is going to continue functioning well. The fact that the section on leadership is so short is rather interesting considering he writes an entire book on the subject only thirty years later. Maybe it is a reflection of how leadership was not as important in the 1960s as in the 1990s. Maybe this change in Gardner’s writings reflects a change in society as a whole. As I continue reading the writings that fill in between the dissertation and On Leadership, I will have to see if this trend continues or how it changes.

Gardner, John W. Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Print.

Gardner, John W. Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? New York: Norton, 1984. Print.

Gardner, John W. Individual Differences in Level of Aspiration. Berkeley, CA: U of California, Berkeley, 1938. Print.

Gardner, John W. On Leadership. New York: Free, 1990. Print.


  1. Matthew Cohen says:

    Hi Astraea,

    This seems like a fascinating topic, especially with the current political climate surrounding partisan Congressional leadership and the emergence of potential 2016 presidential candidates. Gardner led a very busy life, and his perspective on leadership is highly informative. In the section on the relationship between common men and leaders, I found it intriguing that he seems to believe the leaders should be – and are even the only ones – able to solve public problems. How would he distinguish between common people and those who may become leaders in the future (even if they aren’t yet leaders)? Were his studies of aspiration in children meant to identify potential leaders? If he had found a certain personality trait as a good correlation, how do you think he might have reacted to this (encouraged leadership in these individuals, maintained a commitment to equality in education, etc.)? Good luck with the remainder of your research; it should be interesting to read about the rest of Gardner’s beliefs regarding leadership.