History Lessons

What business and management can learn from the great leaders of history

By Jonathan Gifford
Marshall Cavendish Business, 2010

History Lessons offers exploration of the leadership skills and personal qualities of some of the great leaders from history, demonstrating that great leaders come in all shapes and sizes and have faults as well as strengths—but that there are certain key abilities and characteristics shown by all great leaders. This book identifies 8 key leadership abilities: Changing the Mood; Boldness of Vision; Doing the Planning; Leading from the Front; Bringing People with You; Making Things Happen; Taking the Offensive; Creating Opportunities. Each initiative is illustrated with an account of the actions of three great leaders from history.  History Lessons has been translated into Korean and is now in its second edition.


Bernard Montgomery
Elizabeth I of England
Nelson Mandela

Abraham Lincoln
Pericles of Athens
Winston Churchill

Napoleon Bonaparte
Lee Kwan Yew
Martin Luther King

Horatio Nelson
Mustafa Kemal
Muhammad Ali

George Washington
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

Oliver Cromwell
George Patton
Zhou Enlai

Hannibal Barca
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Genghis Khan
Chiang Kai Shek
Marco Polo


Below are some short extracts from Section 2 of History Lessons: Boldness of Vision, giving the first few hundred words from the introduction and from the leaders discussed in this section: Abraham Lincoln, Pericles of Athens and Sir Winston Churchill.

History Lessons is released on February 4th 2010 by Marshall Cavendish Business, price £14.99.


Leaders are often judged by the ‘vision’ that they bring to their organisation. It is probably a mistake to imagine that every organisation is susceptible to a new ‘grand’ vision. The great leaders from history tend, by definition, to have been leaders of a nation, an empire, a movement. Winston Churchill set out a vision for the British people that said that they could, and should, resist the spread of Nazi Germany. It seemed impossible for a small nation—still reeling from the effects of the First World War and the Depression—to stop such a mighty war machine, but Churchill persuaded the nation that it could, just somehow, achieve exactly that. There was no doubt about the vision: ‘Victory – victory – at all costs, victory, in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.’

Most organisations are faced with something less dramatic than imminent invasion by a hostile force bent on world domination (although, in a business sense, that scenario may sound eerily familiar to you). A great vision for any organisation is both simple and—well—bold, but it need not be grand. What, after all, are you leading your team or organisation for? There will be targets to be achieved and directions to be set, but these are in a real sense the essential running, the unavoidable management of your business. A vision is something else: an overriding sense of purpose, a raison d‘etre, a corporate identity (in the real sense of the phrase, as opposed to the more usual ‘what-colour-should-our-logo-be?’ sense).

At this more understandable, more mundane level, it becomes clear that every leader does indeed need a vision. ‘Boldness’ is, after all, a matter of degree, but a vision, by definition, is something that everybody in the organisation can grasp; a simple answer that can instantly be given to the question, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’

The leaders from history in this section were able to offer their nations a truly momentous vision, a vision that changed the course of history. What is interesting is that they had not been born, as it were, with this vision. They had not been carrying it around, waiting to proclaim it to the right audience. They found themselves in a particular set of circumstances; with a particular set of issues—and suddenly it all became clear. In order to lead their country forward, they were able to articulate what everybody needed to hear.

. . . .

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Abraham Lincoln had most, and possibly all, of the qualities that are needed in a great leader. He had a sharp and enquiring mind, able to absorb large quantities of information. Helped by his study and practice of the law, he could consider every facet of an argument, and then present a closely-argued narrative that spelled out the most compelling interpretation of the salient facts. He was a great orator, speaking sometimes at length and in great detail, and at other times with a breathtaking concision and eloquence. He was prepared and willing to compromise, but held strong bedrock convictions from which he would not budge: he would compromise on the solution, but not on the principle. He had great mental toughness and physical stamina: he worked hard. He was a good judge of people; he assembled good teams and helped to bring people of differing opinions together so that they would work towards the common goal. When he found a colleague whom he could trust, he gave them considerable freedom of action. As President of the nation, he had a clear and detailed vision of the way in which he wanted that nation to develop and was able to pursue that vision single-mindedly through the most difficult of imaginable political circumstances: a civil war.

. . . .

Pericles (c.495-429 BCE)

Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, was born around 490 BCE. Greece at the time was a collection of city states engaged in a more or less permanent state of rivalry and warfare between each other, occasionally managing to form a united front against the common enemy, Persia. Though Pericles was only one of several elected Generals, he came to be the effective leader of Athens. In Athens, every free male Athenian was a member of the Assembly. This was a relatively small number—perhaps 43,000 people, of which a quorum of 6,000 was sometimes required to pass business. These manageable numbers allowed a remarkable experiment in total democracy. This was not representational democracy; everybody got to vote, by show of hands, on the key issues of the day (apart from women and slaves, obviously). Pericles ‘leadership’ of Athens was based entirely on his powers of persuasion. Though accused of populism for introducing, for example, payment for members to attend the assembly (before this measure, only citizens wealthy enough to spend time away from their home and their land could afford to attend the Assembly), Pericles was not a populist. A calm and famously incorruptible man, he inspired Athenians to believe in the potential greatness of their city state. The Golden Age of Athens attracted the greatest poets, playwrights, philosophers, architects and artists to Athens. This ‘Golden Age’ of Athens is synonymous with ‘Periclean’ Athens.

. . . .

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born into the English aristocracy in the families’ ancestral home of Blenheim Palace, built for John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, on behalf of a grateful nation, after his victories in the wars of the early eighteenth century. As a young man, Winston was brave and audacious, fighting in the many little wars of a British Empire on which the sun had not yet begun to set. He entered Parliament and rose to the rank of minister—not before, however, he had ‘crossed the floor’ of the House of Parliament, moving from the Conservative party to the Liberal party and making long-standing political enemies in the process. As President of the Board of Trade for the Liberal government Churchill became the perhaps unlikely proponent of a number of social measures, revolutionary for their time. Later, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill built up the navy in response to Germany’s dramatic programme of naval expansion: a dangerous challenge to Britain’s naval supremacy. At the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill had done more than most to put his country onto a war footing. He entered the war with resolution and determination, using the navy to land naval brigades in Northern Europe in an attempt to slow down the advancing German army. And then Churchill made a very big mistake: far from the last mistake of his long career.

. . . .


Professional Manager Magazine, Chartered Management Institute
Jonathan Gifford sets down eight competences exemplified, often in an extreme form, by great leaders. Each competence is put into the context of business management so that the particular abilities of the great leaders of history can be easily related to present day management situations. The competences fall into three groups.  The precursors of action – changing the mood, boldness of vision and planning;  driving action – leading from the front, bringing people along and making things happen;  and finally, building – taking the offensive and creating opportunities. Three great leaders from world history have been selected to exemplify each competence, resulting in a fascinating range of men and women, drawn from different backgrounds, nationalities and historical eras.  For example, the leaders chosen to illustrate making things happen include Oliver Cromwell, George S Patton and Zhou Enlai – far from the usual list of individuals cited in books on leadership. In a few pages, each individual is placed into the historical, social and political context of their time. The cultural setting of their leadership prowess is scrutinised and a compelling picture is painted for each one.  It is no mean feat to draw together so complete a picture of a person exemplifying a particular competence in half a dozen pages packed with interesting detail and insight. The book will enthuse any reader who enjoys biographies, has a general interest in history, or is keen to improve their leadership skills.  It may appear a stretch to imagine that Genghis Khan has lessons to teach modern managers but setting aside an imperfection or two, he can be seen as the creator of an opportunity that led to kick-starting the renaissance.

New Business Magazine
Don’t be put off by the title: this – albeit unconventional – business text examines the past to provide lessons for today’s business owner. An essential element to the success of any firm is leadership. Without someone at the helm with a plan for the future of the company and the personal qualities to inspire those around them a business is likely to fail. History Lessons examines some of the greatest leaders in history, such a Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and George Washington. The text evaluates what specific qualities they had that ensured their success and inspired loyalty in those around them. Chapters include planning, leading from the front and creating opportunities. After the main business concept has been outlined three different individuals are profiled before their business relevance to the chosen topic is teased out. Unsurprisingly, the text does contain historical information that is not necessarily applicable to businesses. However, this is genuinely interesting and it never feels like Gifford is just imparting historical knowledge for the sake of it – the points are all ultimately linked to how to be a successful leader. This is a book for experienced business owners that don’t need a nuts and bolts approach to running a firm but are seeking to become more effective leaders. Rating 7/10

Business Life Magazine
There’s nothing new about finding management lessons in history, but few books offer quite as comprehensive a collection of examples as this one. You can learn planning from Napoleon Bonaparte, about making things happen from Oliver Cromwell, how to take the offensive from Saladin or even how to create opportunities from Genghis Khan. Its all fascinating stuff and there is much of practical use to be learned. Its quite a useful primer for anyone who bunked off history too. Rating 8/10

Jim Storm (editor of New Global Opportunities) blog: “On my bedside table”
This is what I have been reading during the last month: History Lessons: What business and management can learn from the great leaders of history by Jonathan Gifford. This is a comprehensive collection of management lessons based on historical examples. It covers everything from planning (Napoleon Bonaparte) to making things happen (Oliver Cromwell). There is a nice chapter on how to take the offensive (Saladin) and another on how to create opportunities (Genghis Khan). Not only will you learn about running a successful business but there are some very interesting history lessons in here too!”

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