By Don Hunt, President
National Book Lovers Day (Aug. 9) gives me a tinge of guilt. I can still hear 20-something-year-old me, self-proclaiming that I would never buy one of those Kindle things, arguing paper and ink were the only way to go, blah blah blah.
Today’s reality is that I probably haven’t purchased a physical book for six months or more, but I do buy a novel on my iPad every 3-4 weeks. There are a couple business-ish books in my e-library, but for me the most inspiring real-life story of leadership and innovation doesn’t come from any of the on-trend corporate titles (that are always peppered words like “habit”, “crush” or “duct tape”).
My favorite book on leadership isn’t just one book, it is a 2,000-page historical fiction trilogy about the slave uprising of 1791 in Saint-Domingue – now known as Haiti. Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone the Builder Refused give a compelling and complex look into an incredibly important but often ignored event: the self-liberation of Haiti’s slave population.
The trilogy is in large part the story of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the only successful slave revolt in history, and often called “The Father of Haiti”. He defeated not just one but three of the world’s major military powers in a 12-year period.
Louverture was born a slave in Sant-Domingue and on his path to becoming a free man learned to read and write in multiple languages. He was an expert on herbology, medicine, horses and agriculture. He was as knowledgeable about Catholicism as he was voodoo.
In the late 1700s, Haiti was under French rule, with tens of thousands of African slaves working huge sugar plantations, often under brutally violent European colonists. As a slave uprising began to coalesce, a range of different factions and leaders emerged, often working at cross purposes. Toussaint Louverture used a mix of political genius, military insight and a fondness for the philosophy “Doucement alle loin” – Patience conquers force – in becoming the movement’s leader.
As general and ultimately as president, Louverture successfully galvanized, trained and led the freed slave population. He turned away repeated military and diplomatic attempts by the French, English and Spanish to retake what had been one of the most profitable colonies in European history. In doing so he helped create what was only the second free republic on that side of the world, with the very young United States being the other.
European leaders continued to underestimate this reported five-foot-five former coachman as they suffered defeat after defeat trying to retake the “Jewel of the Antilles”. It ultimately required no less than a complex deception by Napoleon himself to “capture” Louverture, bringing him to France under the guise of negotiating Haiti’s future. Upon arriving in France, Louverture was taken to a prison on the mountainous eastern border, where he ultimately died. France briefly reclaimed sovereignty in Haiti, but as Louverture had predicted from his cell, rebel forces retook control in less than two years.
Haiti’s path since independence has been one of the most tragic on the planet – the most recent chapter being the July 7 presidential assassination, resulting power vacuum and accelerating humanitarian crises. The nation Louverture fought for has been decimated by decades of corruption, mountainous international debt and abused natural resources. I will leave it to better informed minds than mine to analyze how and why Haiti has become what it is today.
Military leaders from Patton to SunTzu are often admired to the point of worship by the business world. Bell’s books and other historical accounts make it clear Toussaint Louverture was far from perfect, but as a complex and effective leader, his accomplishments have few peers.
This National Book Lovers Day, I encourage you to think deeply about what you’re reading. Professional development, self-help and care books are great, but you don’t have to neglect the genres you enjoy fearing you will miss opportunities for insight and growth. Look for inspiration and life lessons in the books you enjoy most. Happy reading.