What is the one book that has had the biggest impact on you?

A colleague of mine suggested that I listen to the Tim Ferriss podcast episode with Naval Ravikant, who is an entrepreneur, investor and CEO of AngelList.com. Before I get to the point of this post, I highly recommend this podcast episode. It really made me think long and hard about my own philosophy, the books I read, and on my approach to some important things in life. While I didn’t agree with everything said, I thoroughly appreciated the conversation.

Many of the questions Ferriss asks Ravikant are consistent with the ones he asks in his book, Tribe of Mentors. Towards the end of the episodeFerris asks, “What is the one book that has had the biggest impact on you?”.

ProfilesMy own answer to that question is not hard. For me, the book that has had the biggest impact on me is Profiles in Courage by President John F. Kennedy, which he wrote when he was serving as a United States Senator representing Massachusetts.

This 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book profiles eight United States Senators who, in their time, demonstrated courage by going against the grain of their party or popular opinion to stand up for their beliefs. My edition of the book (a used copy and a priceless gift from my father) has a powerful forward by Robert F. Kennedy and a rich introduction by the author.

In the introduction, President Kennedy explores the differences in between delegation and representation in government. A delegate’s job is simply to reflect the popular opinion of his constituents in legislative discussions. Representatives are elected to bring their judgment and opinions into legislating. Prior to reading the book, I believed firmly in the “delegate” point of view. Reading it changed my perception entirely to the “representative” camp.

Since reading Profiles in Courage, I have not read anything that so fundamentally changed my understanding of leadership and my expectations for leaders. There are many lessons in the book about the commitment it takes to lead in opposition to popular opinion. It is a nuanced view of how leaders stick to their opinions for better or worse and the consequences one might face for doing so.

For example, President Kennedy quotes Senator Daniel Webster’s last words to the U.S. Senate:

I shall stand by the Union…with absolute disregard of personal consequences. What are personal consequences…in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country in a crisis like this?…Let the consequences be what they will, I am careless. No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of his country.

Concepts like the one explained by Senator Webster in the book were my first exposure both to the notion of serving a greater cause as well as to servant leadership and its true, non-rhetorical, non-clichéd implications. Profiles in Courage is both inspiring and and a healthy warning to aspiring leaders. On the one hand, it praises instances where leaders stood up for their convictions and discussed them openly. On the other hand, it outlines the career, health, and general welfare risks of doing so.

Leadership can be both public and deeply isolating. It can give privilege and freedom, while also limiting rights. The bottom line is that leadership is not an easy or simple endeavor and those who do not want to lead and are not prepared for those dichotomies, probably should not.

When I was in school, I felt like leadership was over-emphasized. While anyone can lead, everyone shouldn’t lead. Leader-follower dynamics are important and followers are far more important in actually making change happen. This is the concept behind the social contract, which inherently produces equally important leaders and followers in a society. “Followership” can be learned too and should be discussed and explored along with leadership in academic settings.

Profiles in Courage inspired me to engage in rigorous reflection and questioning to decide whether I really wanted to live the life of a leader who was willing to stand up in the face of public opinion. Thinking about it during my formative years, I knew that I wanted to be a leader that was principled and values-driven and accept the consequences from there. Being secure, self aware, and not taking things personally are all important tools on the way to our own chapters in Profiles in Courage.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership is a challenging proposition filled with dichotomies and, at times, obstacles. Values-based leaders who possess certain qualities, learned over time, can prepare for these challenges. Profiles in Courage is both an inspiring and cautionary book that I recommend highly to all leaders and aspiring leaders.


Profiles in Courage is available for purchase on Amazon for $24.83 (does not include Prime discount)