In this book Robert Coles elucidates the nature of moral leadership by presenting a series of narratives about moral leaders. These are individuals who have made significant contributions to the author's moral development, mostly through personal interaction, but in some cases through their writings or their influence on other people.

The subjects include public personages like Robert Kennedy, Dorothy Day (of the Catholic Worker), Danilo Dolci (a Sicilian community organizer), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Erik Erikson; writers who have influenced Coles, such as Joseph Conrad and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and "ordinary" persons whom he encountered over the years in his studies of the moral lives of children.

The "ordinary" person category is most extraordinary. Coles draws heavily on personal interviews that reconstruct the courageous narratives of people like Andrew Thomas, a young Mississippian who worked on the voter registration project during the summer of 1964; Donita Gaines, one of the first black teenagers to "integrate" an all-white high school in Atlanta in 1961; and Albert Jones, a parent who volunteered to drive the school bus that carried black children in 1967 from Roxbury to a previously all-white school in South Boston.

However, the clearest and most powerful narrative that emerges from this book is that of the author himself, as he develops from young, socially conscious child psychiatrist to a middle-aged man seeking to understand what it means to be a moral leader in today's world.


To use contemporary terminology, this book is clearly an exercise in narrative ethics. It is only through the stories of these individuals that we can tease out the texture and characteristics of moral leadership. In that sense, no abstraction need apply. Yet at the same time, the author is teaching the reader about virtue and, in that sense, the book is also an exercise in virtue ethics. After all, what is moral leadership, if it isn't the public embodiment of integrity, fortitude, courage, and other virtues?


Random House

Place Published

New York



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