The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
By Ursula K. LeGuin
Walker and Company, New York, 1969

I read The Left Hand of Darkness a long time ago, back in my university days I think. It popped back up to the top of my reading list when Ursula K. LeGuin died earlier this year on January 22, 2018.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Cover

I remembered the broad arc of the story and some of the major characters and plot points. But I read as if for the first time the rich culture, complex politics and brutal physical world LeGuin created for this book.

The Left Hand of Darkness is told mostly through the voice of Genly Ai, the human envoy of an alliance of humanoid worlds called the Ekumen. Ai is sent to the planet Gethen to invite the people of this mostly frozen world to join the Ekumen if they so desire. But Gethen has its own internal political and cultural conflicts to resolve, and Ai gets caught up in the subtle yet deadly intrigue and jockeying for power within and between the competing nations of this planet.

So far, so conventional.

But Gethenians are strikingly different from the people of other humanoid worlds: they have no fixed gender. They are ambisexual. Most of the time they are androgynous. About every 26 days they enter a period called kemmer during which they become fully male or female and may mate with another Gethenian in kemmer.

From this one “simple” premise, LeGuin creates a fantastically detailed culture and society. Its implications are profound and far-reaching.

Like all good science fiction, this story is as much about us as it is about the future or some alternate world. We see ourselves reflected through a twisted mirror, from different angles and perspectives. We get to imagine ourselves living different lives in a different kind of world. Things we take for granted, like gender, are rendered strange and mutable when placed in a context where they are absent or radically altered.

We also encounter characters who exhibit a range of responses to their world, mirroring the behaviors of people in our own. In this case it’s responses towards change – first contact with aliens – from those more open and receptive to new people and new ways to those who are more closed-off and reluctant to engage.

The Left Hand of Darkness really is one of the finest examples of what makes science fiction, or better yet speculative fiction, so rewarding. Take some aspect of human society or technology, change it or extrapolate it to an extreme, and then tell a compelling story.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic award-winning novel is worth re-reading many times over.

Related Links

New York Times obituary:

OpEd: The Category-Defying Genius of Ursula K. LeGuin:

Acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017

The first thing you notice about Walter Isaacson’s latest book, Leonardo da Vinci, is its weight. This is a hefty tome. It tips the scales at three pounds even (1360g for those of the metric persuasion) which, based on a completely unscientific sampling of my bookshelves, is about twice the weight of the average hardback. Three pounds may not seem like much, but when you’re sitting up in bed – I hope I’m not over-sharing here – holding a book that large gets to be a bit of a strain after a while.

Leonardo - Cover

The book is a little longer than average too, about 525 pages. But the main reason for the extra weight is that it’s printed on high quality glossy white stock and lavishly illustrated with over 140 reproductions of Leonardo’s paintings, sketches, drawings, and pages from his notebooks.

In short, it’s a beautifully produced book, as befits its subject.

OK, enough about the book. What about the book?

Walter Isaacson has constructed his biography of Leonardo da Vinci as a chronological tour of Leonardo’s work. Yes, there’s plenty of extremely well-researched family and historical information to round out the story, but essentially we see Leonardo develop and mature as a scientist and as an artist through his major works, culminating in the Mona Lisa.

Isaacson meticulously examines each piece, describing the context of the work, and the novel techniques Leonardo had developed or mastered to produce the work. I found myself examining the reproductions in the book under a photographer’s loupe so I could better see Leonardo’s brush strokes and left-handed cross-hatched shading, and look more closely at the geologically accurate rock formations he painted in the background of many of his portraits.

We get to see not just Leonardo’s famous paintings, but also many of the drawings, sketches and even doodles from his notebooks.

After taking this journey through Leonardo’s life and work, I’m left with a few powerful impressions.

The first is awe. True awe. Leonardo had an utterly insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning. This may have been the result of his lack of formal education – he had to teach himself virtually everything he ever knew. He learned enormous amounts and his curiosity knew no boundaries. Anatomy, astronomy, biology, geology, hydrology, mechanics, optics, and many other fields fell under his purview. Instead of seeing them as distinct fields of study he discerned patterns and connections among them. He not only learned but advanced our knowledge in any area he chose to explore.

In addition, Leonardo’s work spanned the divide between art and science in a way that today seems almost impossible. He really saw no distinction between the two. His artistic capabilities enabled his scientific pursuits; his drawings of machinery and human anatomy are not just accurate, they’re exquisite. And his scientific endeavors certainly helped make him arguably the greatest painter of all time. Leonardo could not have painted the Mona Lisa’s famous enigmatic smile had he not dissected over 30 corpses and understood profoundly how the muscles of the lips and face work together when we smile.

(Here she is, smiling enigmatically at me and some other tourists in the Louvre.)

Leonardo - Mona Lisa

And finally, Leonardo easily crossed the boundary between reality and imagination. It was this that enabled him for example, to design flying machines and other devices that wouldn’t be built for hundreds of years.

Leonardo was a master of sfumato, the painting technique of using fine subtle shading rather than hard lines to produce transitions between light and dark or between one object and another. It’s as if he saw distinctions between the arts and sciences, between reality and fantasy in the same softly shaded way. Or perhaps those distinctions didn’t exist with quite the same sharpness in Leonardo’s time as they do in ours.

If Leonardo had a failing, it is that he rarely finished anything. He worked on the Mona Lisa for the last 16 years of his life, carrying it with him as he moved from city to city until finally settling in France, occasionally adding a few brushstrokes here or there. He planned to publish books on many subjects, but never carried them out. He was literally centuries ahead of his time in many fields, but because he never published his work, it was left to the scientists of future centuries to rediscover much of what Leonardo already knew. As Isaacson puts it,

“He enjoyed the challenge of conception more than the chore of completion.” [p. 518]

Another impression I have from the book is how much documentation exists about Leonardo. Of course there are hundreds of pages of his notebooks still in existence in various libraries and private collections all over the world. But Isaacson was able to draw on a wealth of primary and secondary sources in researching the book. Possibly this is because Leonardo’s father was a notary and record-keeping was part of the family heritage. Beyond that though, there are notes and books and records from and about people who associated with or did business with Leonardo. That such a paper trail still exists five hundred years after his death is amazing.

How much of the enormous amounts of data we keep, or others keep, about us today will survive five centuries after we’re gone?

I also like that Walter Isaacson is very much present in the book. He’s more than just a narrator. He gets involved. He’s not afraid to take a stand on some of the controversies about Leonardo still being debated by scholars today, like whether this or that painting was really done by Leonardo or by one of his students. And he shares with us his own sense of wonder as he delves deeply into Leonardo’s life and works.

For example there’s a chapter on Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s famous drawing of a naked man standing spread-eagle inside a square inside a circle. You know, this one:

Leonardo - Vitruvian Man

Isaacson writes of his experience seeing the original:

“Rarely on display, because prolonged exposure to light would cause it to fade, it is kept in a locked room on the fourth floor of the Gallerie del’Accademia in Venice. When a curator brought it out and placed it before me on a table, I was struck by the indentations made by the stylus of Leonardo’s metalpoint pen and the twelve pricks made by the point of his compass. I had the eerie and intimate sensation of seeing the hand of the master at work more than five centuries earlier. “ [p. 153-5]

I felt a thrill reading that passage!

And the rest of the book too.

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Video: What the Future of Energy Means for Canada

A link to this panel discussion cane across my FB feed and I wanted to share it here in a brief post.

The context is Canadian but the perspective is definitely global. Really intelligent, though-provoking discussion about the energy and climate challenges facing not just Canada but the whole world.

And how stimulating to hear a vibrant yet respectful exchange of ideas by passionate people that doesn’t degenerate into a partisan shouting match!

It’s like a high protein meal for your mind!

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Crosscut Festival

Crosscut Festival logo

I spent yesterday attending the Crosscut Festival at Seattle University.  I’ve gone to so many conferences through work that I can’t seem to break the habit of taking and writing up notes.  So here they are.

The conference was organized as a series of panel discussions on business, social, political and environmental issues in the Seattle area. The panelists were “some of the boldest thought leaders in politics, business and social justice activism,” and in general the quality of the discussion was very good.

To get the most out of the day, I tried to attend sessions on topics that I’m not too familiar with, and not just sessions focused on tech – though I did attend a couple of those too.  

One common theme that emerged from the day was the need for individuals to take action in whatever arena they find themselves, on whatever issues they care about, in whatever ways they can. I suspect this is at least in part a reaction to recent events in “the other Washington.” The election of Barack Obama did not usher in a post-racial America. And the election of Donald Trump means that progress on issues like women’s rights, climate change and others must come from us, the people.

Here are some highlights from individual sessions.

Tech and the City

This session featuring former Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, venture capitalist Heather Redman, and Zillow economist Aaron Terrazos focused on the impact large technology companies, mainly Amazon, are having on Seattle. Oliver made the point that since corporations are recognized as legal persons, we should expect them to behave like people who are members of our community. In other words, they should invest in and engage with the community particularly in the areas of education, transportation and affordable housing.

Righting the Wrongs of Racism

A huge subject for a 45 minute panel, and the discussion did meander somewhat, but the main topic was the idea of reparation. The panelists, from a variety of backgrounds (Japanese-, Native- and African-American) each had interesting but slightly different perspectives. One area of agreement was the need for individuals to take action on their own. In fact, one of the panelists, Natasha Marin, has set up an on-line project where individuals can reach out to both request and offer aid. At the same time, there was discussion of the need for us to abandon the myth of “American individualism.” Nobody accomplishes anything by themselves, and this idea of individualism is holding the country back from addressing the problems we face. The rest of the world has long since recognized this and is going ahead without us. (One good example in my opinion is the fact that the rest of the world is continuing to abide by the International Agreement on Climate Change despite the US pulling out. Previous international agreements have collapsed without US support.)

Top Cops Talk Police Reform

Police Chiefs from Seattle (past and current) and Oakland were in very strong agreement about the need for profound structural and cultural changes within law enforcement. There needs to be a national standard for certifying police officers, and decertification of officers who don’t live up to them. Seattle’s new de-escalation training possibly leads the nation. They all also agreed that local police officers should not be involved in enforcing immigration rules. No one gains if undocumented immigrants are too afraid of deportation to cooperate with local police on worker exploitation, human trafficking or other criminal activity. Interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best put it well: “We aren’t safer when we don’t protect undocumented people.” Someone should tell Jeff Sessions.

The Thin Green Line

This panel was billed as a discussion of how environmental activists have succeeded in blocking coal terminals, oil-by-rail shipping, and chemical plants in the Pacific Northwest. But it was more than that. Sally Jewell, founder of REI and a former Secretary of the Interior under President Obama, and Emily Johnston, a poet and activist and founder of the climate justice group 350 Seattle were the main contributors. They presented an insider’s view and an outsider’s view of what’s needed to fight climate change. Jewell stated that we need to “deeply decarbonize.” (It’s too bad the current Secretary of the Interior, not to mention the President, doesn’t have the same view.) Johnston favors more direct action by individuals and probably has a more realistic view of how profoundly we need to change to meet that goal.

How Tech Can Solve Its Diversity Problem

Zoë Quinn was the most engaging speaker on this panel. She’s the video game developer at the center of the GamerGate controversy, and her book Crash Override describes her experience. The discussion was only partly about what corporations should do to diversify their workforce and management. Instead the emphasis was more on what we as individuals should do. Particularly men. Call out misogynistic or discriminatory behavior immediately, in the moment, even if it make us feel uncomfortable. There’s no point apologizing after the fact to the woman or person of color who was treated badly. That’s not helpful. Allies need to act.

The GOP Is Dead. Long Live the GOP

This panel, moderated by KUOW reporter Austin Jenkins, was about the future of the Republican Party in left-leaning Washington State in the era of Donald Trump. The panelists generally took the position that, like the old Pimco Insurance ads used to say, ‘we’re a little different.” Different from the national Republican Party, that is.

They differed on what to do about it. Former Senator Slade Gorton, who turned 90 recently and is still sharp and engaging, took the long view; Republicans have a proud history in Washington State on issues like education and the environment. The political pendulum swings back and forth and Republicans will eventually get their turn again.

Bill Bryant, the 2017 Republican candidate for governor noted that Republicans are only a couple of percentage points away from capturing the Governor’s office, and if they do the hard work and connect with voters about issues they care about, they can win.

Lori Sotelo, chair of the King County Republicans said that the job of party officials like her was to be cheerleaders for the Party’s candidates up and down the ballot, from President to dog catcher. Not a popular view with the audience.

Lastly, Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chairman who has left the party and is now an Independent, got the loudest applause of the day when he said that to succeed in the 2018 midterm elections, “Republicans in Washington state need to disavow Donald Trump.” And Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell too, he added.

This panel really laid bare the challenges and the contradictions of belonging to any political party, not just the GOP. When you disagree with party policies, or with party leadership, do you leave or do you stay? Do you continue to be a cheerleader or do you “disagree and commit” as they say over at Amazon? Where do you draw the line? At what point does party loyalty begin to undermine personal integrity?

As a party organization, how can you credibly claim to be “a little different” while still running under the banner of the national party? Can you really distance yourself from your own party, but still claim to be a better choice than the opposing parties?

Really good discussion by a well-chosen panel that presented a broad spectrum of views.

Overall, I really enjoyed the day.  I hope Crosscut does it again next year.

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Yesterday morning we hitched up our much-loved tent trailer for the last time. We drove down to the Fauntleroy Ferry dock, made the short crossing over calm water to Vashon Island, and with mixed feelings delivered the trailer to a new family.

2017-12-28 Last Ride - no metadata

We bought the trailer, a Coleman Sea Pine, back in the spring or early summer of 2001. For quite a few years, when our kids were younger and smaller, we used it intensively from Memorial Day to mid-October for weekend getaways to nearby forest and mountain campgrounds, and for extended vacation journeys all over the Western United States and Canada. We explored large parts of Washington State and Oregon towing our little fold-up home behind us. We went as far north as Jasper National Park in Alberta, and as far west as Tofino on Vancouver Island. We never ventured very far south; Redwood National Forest in northern California was probably the farthest south we ever got. Our easternmost trip, probably the most memorable one of all, took us to Yellowstone and then, since we were in the neighborhood, a quick dash to Mount Rushmore.

Before the trailer, we’d done a few tent & tarp camping trips, but none of us really enjoyed the work of camping. We wanted to explore new places, see new things, but relax in reasonable comfort along the way. We wanted to stay dry.

Still when we bought the trailer I remember thinking is was a huge extravagance. It had a king bed at one end and a double at the other, a fridge, a cooktop and a hot water heater. It had hookups for power, water and cable TV. It wasn’t really camping at all. It was “glamping”. Did we really need this huge thing in our garage? My father, generally quite a frugal man, surprised me with his enthusiastic approval when he first saw the trailer. He said he regretted not doing something similar when my brothers and I were kids.

Once we got out on the road we realized pretty quickly that our little pop-up trailer was quite modest compared to the truck campers, travel trailers, 5th wheels and mobile homes out there. Plus we could be set up, and comfortable, and dry in about a half an hour.

We were very fortunate to team up with another camping family – our kids went to school together – who showed us the ropes and became our camping companions for many years.

As the kids grew up, the once-spacious trailer started feeling cramped. Then we bought some land and eventually built a vacation home and the trailer sat parked and unused in the garage.

Until finally, yesterday, we sold it to another family with a couple of young children of their own, a family my wife knows through her work.

We felt a twinge of sadness as we drove away leaving the trailer behind. Transitions like this evoke fond memories from years gone by, yet they also mark the passage of time, the end of an era. But it was time to let go. We took good care of the trailer and we left in great shape. It has many years of life left and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, it deserves to be used and loved by another family. Now they will travel and explore and create lasting memories of their own.

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Exit West

Exit West
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, New York, 2017

Wow! What a marvelous magical book to close out this tumultuous year!

Exit West cover

Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, perhaps in the Middle East, or maybe Afghanistan or Pakistan, or possibly anywhere, that is being torn apart by violence. The danger is distant at first, and sporadic, but gradually it encircles and finally sweeps over them.

They escape through a mysterious black door which transports them instantly and safely to another part of the world.

Exit West tells the story of the young couple, how they are changed by and respond to their experiences in their new home. At one level it’s a typical story of migrants as strangers in a strange land.

But Nadia and Saeed are just two out of millions who move through the black doors that have begun to appear all over the world, a mass migration of people leaving behind violence and terror and also family and familiarity, a flow of humanity unstoppable and utterly unimpeded by distance or borders. Parks, greenbelts and hillsides become transformed into tent cities and shanty towns. Everyone must adapt.

Exit West show us people who sever all ties with their homeland when they migrate and others who remain tethered to their original homes by memories, sentiment or nostalgia. Some don’t move at all but feel as if they’ve migrated because everything around them has changed so much that home doesn’t feel like home anymore. And of course we’re all migrants through time. We all leave behind one generation and are left behind by the next.

The book is wonderfully written. Hamid portrays the gradual encroachment of violence, then terror, and eventually destruction on Nadia and Saeed’s once peaceful city in a way that made me feel it happening around me, that made me realize how easily it could happen anywhere, even here. And I loved how Hamid’s beautifully constructed paragraph-long sentences swept me along, sometimes leaving me breathless.

Almost everyone in the story, from Nadia and Saeed to the police and “native” populations of the host countries somehow manage, with difficulty and with some exceptions, to restrain their worst passions. Slowly, tentatively, and with a lot of hard work they settle in and start to reorder their world. It’s fiction but so very pertinent and in the end left me feeling hopeful.

I hope Exit West gives you as much inspiration to start off the New Year as it gave me ending this one.

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The Myth of the Strong Leader

The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age
By Archie Brown
Basic Books, New York, 2014

We all admire strong leaders, leaders with a commanding presence, leaders who aren’t afraid to make tough decisions, who “tell it like it is” and press forward undaunted in the face of critics and nay-sayers.

But are these strong leaders really effective and successful? Do they deliver the results we actually need or want? Do they deserve our admiration?

In The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, Oxford professor emeritus of Politics Archie Brown argues that the so-called strong leader is a myth; such leaders are neither effective nor admirable. On the contrary, they are often disastrous.

The Myth of the Strong Leader - cover

Brown defines the strong leader as

“a leader who concentrates a lot of power in his or her hands, dominates both a wide swath of public policy and the political party to which he or she belongs, and takes the big decisions. “ [p. 1]

Types of Leaders

The bulk of the book consists of a detailed examination of five different type of leaders with examples drawn from 20th and 21st Century history.

Redefining leaders are either individuals or collectives that redefine what is possible and desirable. They reset the political agenda of their society. They move the political center in their direction. Examples of redefining leaders in the US include Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal and Lyndon Johnson with his Great Society legislation. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher is a preeminent example.


Transformational leaders “play a decisive role in introducing systemic change” [p. 148] in their country or internationally. This change can be either political or economic. They change systems in ways that are “qualitatively better” for their citizens. Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, transformed the Russian political system, dismantling the USSR in the process. In China, Deng Xiaoping introduced transformational economic change. Nelson Mandela and Charles de Gaulle also rank as transformational leaders according to Brown. There hasn’t been a transformational US president in a long time. He says Abraham Lincoln was the last one. By abolishing slavery and re-admitting the eleven Confederate states to the union after the Civil War, Lincoln essentially re-founded the United States.


Revolutionary leaders also introduce systemic change, but they do so using violence and coercion during and after their revolutions. They introduce new ideologies to justify the overthrow of existing institutions and to legitimize post-revolutionary regimes. Sun Yat-sen in China, Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are examples that Brown explores in detail. The main thing that distinguishes revolutionary leaders from transformational leaders, according to Brown, is that revolutionary leaders frequently replace one autocratic government with another, often to the detriment of the people.


Totalitarian and authoritarian leaders represent a continuum. In a totalitarian system, one man, and so far it’s always been a man, holds absolute power. At the other end, an authoritarian regime might be run by one man or by an oligarchy. Kim Il Sung’s North Korea represents the former, while the “mild authoritarianism” of Singapore represents the latter. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong fit somewhere along this continuum too, more towards the totalitarian end of course.


Lastly, there are inspirational leaders, people who sometimes hold no political office at all, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Malala Yousafzai, but whose eloquence and/or moral character provide leadership and inspire profound change.



A common theme runs through Brown’s assessment of all these leadership types:  contrary to the myth of strong leaders making big decisions, collaborative decision-making is far better than decision-making by a single individual.

Brown is no fan of the Great Man theory of history. He shows us that even successful redefining and transformational leaders didn’t do it alone.

Lyndon Johnson was a master at wrangling the American Congress to achieve his legislative aims. Mikhail Gorbachev used formidable powers of persuasion to move the Politburo toward his goals, which they realized too late included democratization. Margaret Thatcher was dumped as Britain’s Conservative leader and Prime Minister when her increasingly autocratic ways became too much for her colleagues to tolerate.

Process matters, according to Brown. When leaders, democratic or otherwise, ignore the experts, circumvent cabinet ministers, ignore institutional decision-making practices, all because they think they know best or don’t need the advice of others, the result is usually bad, often disastrous.

Bringing a diversity of perspectives and a diversity of interests to the table, discussing them openly and thoroughly, and giving due weight to the opinions of experts in various government departments all contribute to better outcomes than having a single “decider”.

Even autocratic leaders make better decisions and are less likely to impose great suffering on their people when they collaborate. The Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, for example, was still an authoritarian state, but decisions were made collectively by the Politburo, and therefore,

“The collectivist caution of the top leadership team did not inflict remotely as much pain on their own people as Stalin had done.” [p. 261]

Similarly, in Communist China, referring to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that followed:

“The greatest disasters occurred during the period when Mao Zedong wielded untrammeled power.” [p. 261]

Democratic leaders are much less likely to make the kind of catastrophic blunders that autocratic leaders do, mainly because democracies restrain the decision-making powers of leaders. These restraints might take the form of constitutional checks and balances as in the US, Cabinet level decision-making processes as in the UK and Canada, and political parties everywhere which enable mass participation in both political goal setting and leadership selection and also form a “loyal opposition” to the party in power.

Still, even democracies are not immune to dire consequences when leaders attempt to concentrate power in the name of appearing “strong.” Brown’s main example here is Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to commit British troops to the Iraq War.

In conclusion, Brown warns us that,

“Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice to both good governance and to democracy.” [p. 362]

Unsolicited Feedback

The Myth of the Strong Leader is an in-depth, academic survey of the history of political leadership in the 20th and early 21st Centuries.

It’s a really important book at a very critical time.

Despite being published a couple of years before the election of Donald Trump, it contains enough historical warning bells and flashing red lights to make anyone anxious about the style and direction of his Administration.

It’s too bad it’s not more readable.  The book is really an academic work, not a popular one. It took me a couple of tries to get through it and I admit I bypassed my 100 Page Rule by skimming through pages of details about leaders or revolutions that didn’t particularly interest me.

Well Archie Brown is an Oxford professor and there’s no question of the depth of his scholarship and research.

A couple of other observations before I wrap up:

  • Brown doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as I expected about the Bush Administration’s decision making process on the invasion of Iraq. It’s not completely absent, but the focus is much more on how Tony Blair got the UK involved in that war.
  • This is a book about political leadership and doesn’t cover leadership in the business world or in other types of organizations.  Even so I think the overall message about the benefits of collaborative leadership and a diversity of perspectives is applicable in these areas of society too.

The Myth of the Strong Leader is really a lengthy argument for the benefits of diversity. Leaders who invite and bring together a variety of opinions, expertise and perspectives, who include rather than exclude, who persuade rather than dominate, make better decisions and deliver better government. And they show greater strength of character and intellect than any so-called “strong leader.”

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