Back to Basics: A Classic Treatise on Leadership Reissued by Harvard Business Review

By Kevin O’Donnell

Understanding Leadership appeared in the September-October 1961 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Regular readers of the prestigious journal must have been puzzled. Who was W.C.H. Prentice, the author of the piece?  

Far from being a captain of industry, W.C.H. Prentice was a former professor of psychology who had turned his hand to administering schools:  first a commercial college, then a liberal arts college for women, and finally Swarthmore College, ranked among the top three of the “little Ivies” (Ivy League schools) in academic achievement.

In 2004, more than four decades after this article appeared in its pages,  Harvard Business Review republished Prentice’s foundational insights into the qualities of a successful leader. The editors noted,

While his language in some passages is dated, Prentice’s observations on how leaders can motivate employees to support the organization’s goals are timeless, and they were remarkably prescient.

Eighteen years after this reprint, we think Understanding Leadership still stands the test of time. Consider these insights from Prentice:

  • Attempts to analyze leadership tend to fail because the would-be analyst misconceives his task. He usually does not study leadership at all. Instead, he studies popularity, power, showmanship, or wisdom in long-range planning. Some leaders have these things, but they are not of the essence of leadership.
  • Leadership is the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants. The man who successfully marshals his human collaborators to achieve particular ends is a leader. A great leader is one who can do so day after day, and year after year, in a wide variety of circumstances.

The theme of the July 2022 issue of the Cornerstone Eagle is the future of work.  Some leadership traits are perennial, it says: “Wisdom and discernment in making the most appropriate decisions are critical.”

W.C.H. Prentice’s Understanding Leadership can help lay the groundwork for making appropriate decisions.  

The full text of Understanding Leadership can be found on the website of the Harvard Business Review.

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