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Literature and Leadership: A Conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Samet

March 10, 2021

Speakers: 

Dr. Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English, the United States Military Academy at West Point

Eliot A. Cohen, Dean, Johns Hopkins SAIS

The school welcomed renowned author on defense and military history, Dr. Elizabeth Samet for a conversation on how literature can build character and foster critical-thinking skills for future leaders in politics, business, law, medicine, and beyond.

Samet began the discussion by reflecting on her background and upbringing, noting how her father’s experiences during World War II inspired her to eventually become involved with military affairs. As a student of English literature at Harvard and Yale University, Samet recalled combining her literary expertise with the life of Civil War hero and former President, Ulysses S. Grant, to eventually become a professor at West Point. Samet then went on to mention some of her major interests and current pursuits, which have included upcoming writings on how the myths of war shape military and civilian life, especially those that were formulated during the second world war, as well as a biography of Alexander the Great.

In response to a question regarding the sources she uses to teach her students, Samet noted that she relies on the world instead of exclusively on American history. In particular, she mentioned how she had her students read Persian poet, Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh (the Book of Kings) among other works. This, she said, is to help ground the students in the reality of warfare and military pursuits through a more expansive human lens. In response to a question regarding some notable myths, Samet discussed the belief of a “chivalrous South,” and Grant’s mistake to fight rather than parley at the Battle of Cold Harbor, which showed he was not an impeccable messiah, but a human who could make mistakes.

Finally, Samet left the audience with a wealth of important advice. She noted that leaders must be like chameleons, changing colors to suit the political, economic, and military reality they face instead of becoming dogmatic and fanatical in defense of losing efforts. She further stressed that all cultures around the world have a counterculture, and it is up to society at large to reconcile and benefit from the power of both of these groups. Finally, she noted that leadership itself should be looked at as the failings on the institutional level which nurtures and produces them.