Looking at leadership through the eyes of John W. Gardner: Post 3

Throughout most of his career, Gardner struggles with both the idea of all people being able to reach their potential and the common good. He talks about the importance of individual potential and the common good and the barriers to both. In his early writings, he is ambiguous about how society can both ensure individuals can reach their potential and focus on the common good when oftentimes the common good can inhibit individual potential. In the end, he settles on strong leadership as the best way to achieve both ends.

In his first book, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?, Gardner discusses the age old struggle in American society between equalitarianism and individual performance which is reflective of his overall career focus on individual potential and common good. Gardner discusses the importance of individual performance to Americans. He says, “Americans have always assumed that the only sensible way to organize society is to allow each individual to enjoy whatever status, privileges and power he is capable of winning for himself out of the general striving” (“Excellence,” 15-16) – or the principle of ‘let the best man win.’ It is this individual striving from which innovation and the unbridled American spirit springs.

John W. Gardner has a strong focus on the individual throughout his entire career. His doctoral dissertation, Individual Differences in Level of Aspiration, tried to ascertain whether or not there were individual characteristics that led people to have higher or lower aspirations. Many of his later books focus strongly on the individual as well.

Gardner holds the classic liberal belief of the supremacy of the rights and potentials of the individual. In No Easy Victories, he says that the purpose of the government and law making is “to enhance the individual human being … that is to make the world manageable, so that individuals may have the maximum amount of freedom, freedom to grow and develop, freedom to be what they have it in them to be, freedom to choose” (151-152). On the flip side, he notes that for the government itself to flourish it “must encourage high individual performance” to avoid “clos[ing] itself off from the mainsprings of its dynamism and talent and imagination” (“Victories,” 61).

Gardner recognizes that individual potential is different for each individual. In Excellence, he confronts the commonly held belief that not attending college means not succeeding in life. He says, “[T]he college or university is the instrument of one kind of further education of those whose capacities fit them for that kind of education. It should not be regarded as the sole means of establishing one’s human worth.” (“Excellence,” 80). For many people, other trades or occupations are the best way to fulfill their individual potential because they can use their skills and abilities to truly succeed; “we need a broad conception of standards embracing many kinds of excellence at many levels” (“Victories,” 60).

According to Gardner, the American love of equalitarianism, and the common good, comes from the foundation of a country where “men are equal in the possession of certain legal, civil and political rights” and from the “frontier conditions” of the American West (“Excellence,” 11-12). American equalitarianism focuses on equality of opportunity recognizing that people will have different skills and motivations. Gardner uses the expression “we may not all hit home runs, but every man should have his chance at bat” (“Excellence,” 12) to illustrate American sentiment regarding equalitarianism.

In many of Gardner’s books, there is a strong emphasis on fixing social ills to improve the common good. By improving “education, health, poverty, housing, employment, equal rights, the environment, and war and peace” (“Common Cause,” 17), society can improve the lives of many people. This leads to people having access to better schooling, a healthier environment to live, and equal opportunities enabling more people to reach their fullest potential.

Oftentimes “what is good for one or another of the diverse segments or individuals within the group is not necessarily good for the group as a whole” (“Leadership,” 97). Gardner uses the “Tragedy of the Commons” example to illustrate this point; if every cow farmer puts as many cows out to pasture on the commons so as to make more profit, the cows will run out of grass and have no more to eat. Then the farmers will lose their cows and will be much worse off than when they started. If the farmers cooperated and all only put as many as the commons could support, they would all have profit and fewer dead cows. This example shows how it is actually better for everyone when people work together for the common good instead of serving their own special interests.

There are limitations to both equalitarianism and individual performance if either is taken to the extreme. Extreme forms of individual performance can lead to the trampling of the weak by the strong – “the law of the jungle: let those who can, survive; let others go under” (“Excellence,” 20). Extreme forms of equalitarianism “ignore differences in native capacity and achievement” which means an end to personal achievement and innovation; “the individual [is] smothered by the group” (“Excellence,” 15). Similarly, individual potential is restricted by aspects of the common good – either from the common good being different than the individual good or from aspects of the common good that have not been improved such as discrimination, lack of education, and poverty. On the flip side, Gardner says the common good is restricted or not sought after due to the individual interests of people or groups who are “rewarded for single-minded pursuit of the interests of their group” (“Leadership,” 98).

Firstly, there is a lot of ambiguity in Gardner’s early writings about how society can ensure that all people have the opportunity to reach their potential. Secondly, there is a lot of ambiguity about how society can maintain the common good. Thirdly, there is never any mention of society can both provide for individual potential and the common good; that is, until Gardner’s final book, On Leadership.

Gardner’s struggle with individual potential and the common good is steady throughout his entire career, but his focus on leadership slowly increases throughout. His first few novels never or rarely ever mention ‘leadership’ as a subject, but his last book focuses on leadership entirely. The focus on leadership in Gardner’s works parallels closely the greater trends in a focus on leadership throughout the US. It is not surprising that as his focus on leadership increases it comes to the fore as the answer to the big issues posed in his earlier works.

Gardner says in On Leadership that leaders have to be “accessible, responsive and accountable” (“Leadership,” 154) to their constituencies. They “must recognize the needs of followers or constituents, help them see how those needs can be met, and give them confidence that they can accomplish that result” (“Leadership,” 184). In other words, leaders are responsible for motivating their constituencies to achieve their potential.

Leaders are also responsible for creating the environment in which the potentials of their constituency can be reached by improving the common good. “[I]f our representative institutions are working as they should … they move toward some approximation of the common good” (“Leadership,” 98). It is important for leaders to work with other members of society to solve problems of the common good even if those problems do not directly impact their constituency.

Gardner desperately wants a constituency that is not passive. He feels “individuals must see themselves as having a positive duty to nurture and continuously reconstruct the community of which they are a part” (“Leadership,” 188). Unfortunately, this is a very unrealistic ideal. In most cases, unless a leader does something really bad, his or her constituency is not likely to say anything about what the leader is doing or even know anything about what the leader is doing. Constituents become passive followers to their leaders. By not actively voicing their opinions, constituents are not giving full ‘consent of the governed,’ but they are not saying ‘no’ either. Could characteristics of leadership give rise to this passive followership? It’s possible – more research on the subject would be good.

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. In Common Cause. New York: Norton, 1972. Print.

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

Gardner, John W. No Easy Victories. Ed. Helen Rowan. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Print.

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

Gardner, John W. The Recovery of Confidence. New York: Norton, 1970. Print.

Gardner, John W. Self-renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.


  1. This was a really cool read. It is very interesting to think about Gardner’s views in the context of the political rhetoric today. Many times, those who highlight the achievement of the individual do not put as much stress on bettering more foundational aspects of society (schools, housing, poverty, etc). In contrast, those who put stress on the foundational aspects of society tend to focus more on collective achievement than individual achievement. It is interesting to see how Gardner’s ideas present almost a hybrid of the two– he believes improving foundational aspects of society can help people become the individual leaders and achievers that they have the potential to be.