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Biographies Offer Lessons in Leadership

By: Lower School Director Elizabeth Zurlinden

November 28, 2016

In 1825, a young Abraham Lincoln borrowed a book from a neighbor and while in his possession, the book was ruined due to a roof leak. Lincoln worked for his neighbor to compensate for the book’s value, thus becoming the first book Lincoln would personally own. Through this brief glimpse into our 16th president’s life, there is much to admire and learn about Lincoln’s character, his respect for learning and the responsibility he exhibited to repay his neighbor. As parents and educators, Lincoln’s life stories present many opportunities to teach the intangible, yet enduring values Rossman School holds dear — kindness, honesty, respect and responsibility.

Mentoring Through the Pages

“Honest Abe” himself is a great example, but these traits abound in the lives of many genuine, courageous, hard-working men and women in history accessible at any time to mentor and teach through the pages of biographies. Interestingly, the book Abraham Lincoln worked to repay was his favorite, a biography titled, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.

The biography genre is important for even the youngest readers. As children read biographies, they engage with compelling individuals set within the truth of history. Consider the depth of what children learn from the commitment of Dr. Jane Goodall, who as a young girl loved her stuffed toy chimpanzee and for years pursued her passion to become the famed environmentalist or from the perseverance of a young, illiterate Booker T. Washington who had the vision to overcome tremendous obstacles to become a prominent educator, activist and advisor to presidents.

A Treasure Trove of Leadership Lessons

Biographies feature the remarkable lives of world influencers in the fields of art, science, technology, exploration, politics and much more. Many are heroes whose lives are worthy of admiration because they are rooted in great values. Additionally, they teach important lessons about the practice of principles. That’s when our “Rossman Rules” become more than mere words, and life is breathed into our teaching.

If our children’s lives are influenced by the people they hang out with, then who better to get to know than Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Keller, Phyllis Wheatley, Albert Einstein, Malala Yousafzai, Neil Armstrong, and Horace Pippen? From Anne Frank to Jackie Robinson, the biographies of these mentors detail their personal journeys allowing us to gain wisdom for our own paths. We see they are a lot like us – they faced problems, obstacles, and fears, were passionate and had big dreams, worked diligently to achieve and confidently believed in themselves and their work. Their principled lives are a treasure trove of leadership lessons and prove that one person can make a difference.

Likewise, biographies offer perspective to confront our own. These compelling life stories engage our minds to think critically and ask “What would I do?” or “Could I persevere and handle the same adversity?” or “How can pursuing my passion serve others?”

“A factual tale of a courageous person overcoming challenges can inspire kids to face their own obstacles with hope and determination. It can even spark a desire to make the world a better place,” says education journalist Maria Minsker.

Meeting Our Mental Ancestors

Just as biographies challenge us, they inspire us. They encourage curiosity and spark creativity. Being invited into the lives of Henri Matisse, Snowflake Bentley, Marie Curie and Pablo Neruda grants incredible access to view a courageous, creative life and the passion which fuels commitment. We marvel at cultural contributions made by an artist, photographer, scientist, and poet and we wonder, “What will be my contribution?”

Blogger and author Maria Popova refers to reading biographies as meeting our “mental ancestors – those people to whom we aren’t related but whose values we try to cultivate in ourselves; role models we seek out not from our immediate gene pool but from the pool of culture that surrounds us, past and present.”

Secrets of Success

Biography is one of the oldest forms of literature. Evidence of biographies is found in writings on the tombs of ancient Egyptian rulers praising their lives; early biographers also depicted the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Today, Rossman students in all grade levels enjoy biographies of accomplished leaders. Junior Kindergartners learn about the extraordinary lives of artistic masters and imitate their unique style in their own art creations. Our country’s founding fathers are a favorite of first graders who study the men honored on the U.S. coins they study in math. Upper School students learn of Civil War leaders and civil rights activists. And in sixth grade, Rossman’s own student leaders research and report on a world changer of their choice in an interdisciplinary project integrating literature, technology and art.

“What do we learn from these biographies?” asks education writer Sam Blumenfeld. “The priceless lessons of experience. Human beings, male and female, have been capable of extraordinary feats in all areas of endeavor. We live in a world built by their genius and inventiveness. The secrets of success are to be found in all of these remarkable lives. If you wish to excel in your own life, there is no better place to find inspiration than in the lives of those who have changed our world and changed our lives for the better.”

Recommended Reads

Winter break offers children time to dive into a biography or two. Here a few websites with recommendations.


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