Formation | Community | Culture

Five Good Reads: Biography


In this series, Five Good Reads, I’m offering pastors the most important and helpful non-required books. So, these are books you didn’t come across in seminary but will find immensely practical for ministry–and they should be fun to read, too.

Just like preachers and teachers need to read fiction and poetry, since we’re in the business of language, leaders need to read biography, since we’re in the business of personal development and motivation. For more than 40 recommendations on leadership, see my XP 101 and 201 lists.

As always, Amazon links are provided, but yours truly recommends supporting your local booksellers.

(Note: These Five Good Reads are adapted from an earlier post on the best creative nonfiction.)


Wooden: A Coach’s Life by Seth Davis

ESPN’s Seth Davis is a surprisingly good writer, and he gets phenomenal access to Wooden and his family. For the sake of brevity, see what I’ve already written on Wooden and this bio in Five Leadership Lessons from Coach Wooden.

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester

William Manchester is one of the premier historians of our day, having also written an award-winning biography of Douglas MacArthur and several volumes of 20th Century history. But he is most well-known for his comprehensive three-volume work on Churchill. Book One (Visions of Glory, 1874-1932) cover Churchill’s early life and rise to public prominence, and Book Three (Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965) follows him from his appointment as Prime Minister, through the Great War, and into his final years. But in between, Alone, 1932-1940 majestically captures the nine-year period of Churchill’s “exile,” where he stood alone in British parliament against the rising Nazi threat. Manchester’s books read like novels, and you won’t be disappointed. (You also have my permission to not ready every single word of this 3000-page set.)

For a quicker introduction to Churchill, you can check out Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor. It’s a really well-written and entertaining overview of Churchill’s accomplishments, but I found it to be a bit over-obviously pro-Winston. (It was commissioned and financed by Churchill’s own family and foundation. No wonder.)

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead by Justin Martin

This is a delightful book. Olmstead (1822-1903) was the brilliant designer of NYC’s Central Park, Niagara Falls, hundreds of university campuses, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville NC, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and my local beauties, Louisville’s Cherokee, Seneca, Iroquois, Central, and Shawnee Parks. In addition to being the greatest American landscape architect, Olmstead was also a prominent journalist, public administrator and conservationist. In Genius of Place, Martin beautifully captures Olmstead’s brilliance and madness, unrelenting work ethic, hilarious relationships with the Vanderbilts (for whom he built the Biltmore) and Leland Stanford (the railroad tycoon, politician and founder of Stanford U), and his strained relationship with his children, who would eventually carry on his work as the Olmstead Brothers. This is book was hard to put down, and it also makes a great gift.

Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry Truman, by Aida Donald

Only one American president has come out of my beloved home state of Missouri, and it’s my boy Harry S Truman. Some Truman facts I didn’t know until Donald’s biography:

The “S” in Harry S Truman doesn’t stand for anything. It previously was the surname of one of Harry’s family members, but the guy was a brute and drunk, so when Harry was of age, he had his name legally changed so that his middle initial is simply the letter S. Lesson #1: Don’t mess with Harry S Truman.

Truman is the only president that didn’t graduate from college. I love the hustle. Apparently, he took a handful of courses at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and UMKC promotes him as one of their distinguished alumni, but was literally like two Phys Ed classes. I love the hustle. Whereas most current Senators, governors, and public officials have a dozen or so fancy initials behind their names, my boy barely finished high school… and yet has universities and colleges named after him! Get it, Harry.

Truman’s morning routine while in the Oval Office included waking up earlier than anyone else, going out with Secret Service for a brisk pre-dawn walk around D.C., and eating eggs and bacon with a shot of bourbon (remember, his family was from KY). He started his meetings then around 8am, which was demanding on his meeting partners, who had to figure out transportation into the White House and would arrive groggy. Then, HST would pounce. I love it.

Harry spent most of his time in office deeply depressed. Part of the Donald biography’s contribution to HST literature is the emergence of new letters from Harry to his wife while he was hiding out at nearby retreats and hotels by himself. But this too is part of his intrigue and brilliance; see A First Rate Madness for more on the connections between mental illness and leadership.

Lastly, and this is one I sort of knew, but Truman basically had the KC Mafia (the Pendergast family) to thank for his career. See, Truman was basically a failure for the first third of his life. He took over his family farm after finishing high school, and he bankrupted it. He tried opening a business suit store in downtown KC, but it went toes up, too. He got married and couldn’t provide for his family, so in his early Thirties, he decided to enter the War. Here, he finally found himself, and earned a reputation as a wild and fearless hero.

When he returned to Missouri after the War, he did some local speeches and was approached by the Pendergast regime about running for local office. Although their connection was never tight enough to get HST into trouble, it was clear they were backing him. His rise in politics was unreal: He started as a small city manager outside KC, then quickly became a State Rep for MO. Then when Franklin D Roosevelt was seeking a new Vice President for his second term, he had a few very specific qualifications: FDR wanted a current Senator or Representative who had served in WWI, and he wanted someone who hadn’t recently been mired in a scandal. Seriously, that left one man, this unheard of, brand new, Mafia backed high school grad named Harry S Truman. What could go wrong?

Well, within a year or two, Vice President Truman was out late at a political party and got a message to return to the White House immediately. He arrived around 2am on April 12, 1945, partially inebriated, to see a grieving Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in his office. “The President is dead,” she announced, and Truman was sworn into office. Moments later, he was told of the atomic bomb for the first time.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Now, this a great biography about one of the most polarizing and intriguing figures of our early century. So, it is very much worth the read. But if I hear another pastor quoting from Jobs or using something he did as an example of great, innovative leadership, I’m a lose my crap. Pastors should read about Jobs because all leaders should read about Jobs, but if this is your definition of great leadership, you might want to spend a little more time in the Scriptures! But seriously, it’s one of the most well-written biographies I’ve ever read, and you do want to check it out.


OK, folks, that’s all I got for you today. Check back in for the next episode of Five Good Reads.



[Photo cred: Glen Noble/ Unsplash]

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