March 17, 2018

A Look at “Profiles in Leadership” | Focus on Leadership and Management

Leadership has become one of the most popular terms when applied to human behavior, particularly with regard to the operation of an organization, the actions of government, or the success of other entities or endeavors.  In some cases, it has been used interchangeably with the term management, thus confusing the differentiation commonly cited between the two words.

One of the more important, but little referred to, works of leadership, which helps to clarify the true meaning of being a leader, is a biographical compilation by Alan Axelrod.  His book, Profiles in Leadership, was produced a decade ago by Prentice Hall Press, at that time a noted business publisher.

Axelrod’s research looked at about 160 well known, and not so well known, men and women in history, from ancient times through the 20th century, from Julius Caesar to Colin Powell.  The uniqueness of Axelrod’s work was the distribution of these individuals into fourteen categories of leadership, noting the number of such attributes each possessed and/or demonstrated. A compilation of leadership achievements and leadership lessons, in addition to a brief biography, highlight the information on each individual included in his work.  The book is organized alphabetically by profile, and provides an index of the leaders by the categories under which they fall.

The fourteen categories of analysis cover such traits as being a character model (someone to be emulated), a conqueror (achieves a quest), or improviser (adds value to what exists), an innovator (creates something to benefit others), a leverager (adds new dimensions to something), a mentor (provides caring and meaningful advice to others), a motivator (is an inspiration), a problem solver (resolves important issues), a profit maker (is highly successful, and is not limited to financial achievement), a rescuer (liberates others), a strategist (adept at planning), a systems creator (excels methodically), a tactician (is statically resourceful), and a visionary (combines imagination with reality).

The frequency with which the individual leadership skills are mentioned also adds further definition to the interesting nature of this work.  Clearly the most important characteristic, found in two-thirds of the profiles, is the leader as a motivator or an inspiration to others.  The topic of leadership is not surprising in itself, but it is when applied to the centuries of society represented by the lives of those heralded in this work.  Not far behind the motivator are the strategist and tactician, which are found in sixty percent of the listings.  Character model, conqueror, and innovator are included in almost half of the entries.  The remaining leadership traits are scattered throughout the profiles, but are evident far fewer times. The least named of the fourteen elements is profit maker, which appears on only twelve occasions, less than eight percent of the total.

The importance of this encyclopedic work can be seen in a variety of ways; its contents are critical to any understanding of what leadership really entails.  An analysis of the characteristics from the fourteen principles which Axelrod offers demonstrates the many ways in which a leader can be identified and evaluated.  Fourteen distinct categories provide a diverse and comprehensive review of issues that can be attributed to the function of leadership.  It should also be noted that one leader can embody a multitude of achievements, as underscored by several biographies which contain as many as seven traits.  Indeed, it is interesting to note just how varied and extensive such a range of skills can be.  The profiles span multiple millennia, thereby underscoring how leadership skills have been practiced for thousands of years by individuals around the world.

One final value of Axelrod’s publication is his listing of not only the special achievements of each leader, but also the lessons to be learned from that person’s actions and accomplishments.  This, alone, makes the volume one of the most significant leadership works available to us.  Additionally, a number of the profiles include a section entitled “in his or her own words”, which provides even further insight into the leaders’ own sense of self.

Profiles in Leadership is one of the few books about leaders that have had a lasting value on my education in the field.  Along with The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, it has provided a valued lesson in comprehending the dimensions of the topic and the extent to which it impacts our societal development.  Although there are many other such books to choose from, these two, in my mind, are above all the rest.

The challenge for professionals is to find the best sources of motivation to improve and further develop their leadership skills, and to recognize that multiple traits can only enhance the ability of an individual to be a true leader.

It would be of interest to know your view of this material, and/or the leadership works which most influenced you.  Although my perspective identifies their value from the educational side, as well as experientially, your approach may take a different tact.  It is our hope that this column will help to bring together the array of views on the issues of leadership and management, and identify and expose our readers to a broader understanding of the works that have most impacted our colleagues.


Ernie DiMattia About Ernie DiMattia

Ernest A. DiMattia, Jr. ( is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Ferguson Library, the public library in Stamford, Connecticut. He holds an MBA (University of Connecticut) and a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science (Simmons College), as well as a Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics (Boston College).

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  1. Thanks for pursuing this most important topic of librarianship. I agree with your initial statement, “In some cases, [leadership] has been used interchangeably with the term management, thus confusing the differentiation commonly cited between the two words.” Another often cited statement these days is that something is a distinction without a difference. That is not applicable to leadership and management, because they are two very distinctly different qualities.

    To cut to the chase, getting rid of bedbugs in the library is a management task, whereas keeping a bedbug infestation from damaging the library’s reputation or the organization’s morale is a leadership task. A manager can handle the first job, but it takes a leader to handle the second.

    For the past 30 years, my best definitions have been the following.
    Leader: A person, who by force of example, talents, and/or qualities of character plays a directing role, wields commanding influence or has a following in any sphere of activity or thought.

    Manager: A person who conducts, directs or supervises activities, especially the executive functions of planning, organizing, coordinating, directing, controlling and supervising of any business type project or activity with responsibility for results.

    Last year I published a whole series of posts on library leadership at 21st Century Library Blog beginning with The Excellent Library Leader.