COLUMN: President White takes students to the pride lands for lessons in leadership

By George Ploss

When it comes down to it, you just have to ask yourself if you’re a mammal or a reptile.

President White’s favorite movie is “The Lion King.” On top of the fact that this is the cutest aspect of any University President, it’s also apparent on the cover of his new book “The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals, and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader.” “The Nature of Leadership” was an easy read: potent, poignant and redundant, but invaluable to anyone with aspirations.

With the market already saturated with books on leadership covering topics from what to do in certain situations in a Fortune 500 company to how to apply complex models of decision making to specific situations, from corporate pamphlets that are passed out during retreats to books like “The 8th Habit” to military science curriculum, it seems like everyone is telling us a specific route towards greatness. So what makes “The Nature of Leadership” different? What makes it such an important addition to the genre? Why does it stand out?

In all honesty, it is its simplicity. It breaks potential leaders down into two types: reptiles and mammals (hence the title). There is only one model, a pyramid with four quadrants. At the top you have great leaders, in the middle your style of leadership (mammalian and reptilian), and at the bottom the basic foundation of wanting to be a leader.

“I wanted to write something that you can use. If you can’t remember the main points, what good is it?” asked President White during our interview. “I see myself as both an educator and an administrator,” he added while subtly hinting that he has also grasped the amalgam of being both types of leaders and becoming great as a result.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

There is a “case study” on leadership inside the book describing President White’s experience as interim President at the University of Michigan during the affirmative action crisis in 2003; White uses himself as an example on how to be reptilian and mammalian.

I mentioned that the book was simple, but not to a point where it insults your intelligence. He names a lot of current leaders in the book with the only posthumous reference being to President Lincoln. The leaders, Steve Jobs, Mannie Jackson, Desmond Tutu, Madeline Albright, for example, are all people that White has met and talked with. President White did not proclaim himself a scholar on leadership but just an educated and observant man who happens to be a leader. And by doing this his credibility for the subject is increased, as is evident in his writing. With the exception of the 16th president of the United States, he shook hands with those he mentioned passionately, expresses how they influenced him specifically and why, in his opinion, they are great.

It wasn’t preachy, it was practical. It wasn’t littered with complex models and multi-syllabic words that would alienate those who would benefit most from the read. He explains the difference between managers and leaders. He gives his opinion on how leaders can be developed and uses himself as a lead example. However, the specifics of how to become this hybrid animal can be difficult to follow because they seem very opulent, and parts that focused on how good leaders must be tough yet open minded seem a little too obvious for print.

“The Nature of Leadership” strafes the line of a humble lesson and a sensible critic as he attempts to measure the most quintessential form of subjectivity.

Overall, the book is a good read that provides a fresh, alternative perspective to what already exists. It isn’t overbearing in any way and provides motivation on numerous levels for all aspiring leaders. Its diction isn’t resounding, and yet it is resolute. It’s a heartfelt message which is innovative in its design and straightforwardness.

One Love.