Past masterclasses: history’s great leaders had talents we can still learn from in the workplace

by | 25 Apr 2010 | Leaders from History

This article first appeared in The Guardian and can be seen at
The article is based on historical figures who feature in Jonathan’s book, History Lessons

History is filled with the achievements of great leaders, but what were they so good at, and how did they achieve the things that made them great? The short answer is: they were good at some things and rubbish at others.

Some really great leaders did nearly all of the things that leaders are supposed to be good at.; some did only a few. Many were so brilliant at some things that the fact that they were indifferent at others was eclipsed. Which is pretty much like the rest of us: strengths and weaknesses; talents and foibles; good days and bad days.

History Lessons picks out eight things that leaders do, such as Leading from the Front. Anybody who takes on an arduous or unpleasant task is leading from the front: making that difficult phone call; volunteering for a tedious but essential task; demonstrating that you are not asking other people to do anything that you will not do yourself. One of the leaders chosen to illustrate Leading from the Front is Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar. Leading from the front what is what Nelson did; it defines him. He lost an eye leading a shore attack in Corsica, when a cannonball impact threw sand and stones into his face. In another shore attack, on Tenerife, he was so badly wounded that his arm had to be amputated. He won fame and glory by leading a boarding party to capture not one, but two, Spanish vessels in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. This is how Nelson gained the unquestioning loyalty of his men. In one desperate skirmish against the Spanish at Cadiz, which led to hand-to-hand fighting on small boats, Nelson’s life was saved by his coxswain, John Sykes, who used his bare arm to parry a sword blow aimed at Nelson’s head. ‘Thank God, sir, you are safe’, said the badly wounded Sykes. When Nelson devised his plan to attack the French and Spanish fleet off Trafalgar by sailing at right angles towards and through the line of enemy ships, instead of lining up for the traditional exchange of broadsides, he knew that his leading ships would be exposed to enemy fire for a desperately long time without being able to return significant fire. It was customary to place the admiral’s flagship in the centre of the line; Nelson put HMS Victory at the head of the line. He stayed on deck commanding the battle (‘No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy’) and was shot by a French marine from the rigging of a ship that Victory had engaged. ‘Thank God, I have done my duty’, said the dying Nelson.

Taking the Offensive is another leadership skill that derives mainly from the military. Who better, then, to illustrate this attribute than an unassuming, middle-class, Victorian young lady from Suffolk? Elizabeth Garrett Anderson took on the entire nineteenth-century medical profession in her simple desire to be allowed to practice medicine. There was a slight problem: none of the examining bodies would issue the necessary qualification to a woman. In many cases, the examining bodies’ ancient charters had simply never envisaged that they would be faced with this bizarre demand. There was one loophole: the Society of Apothecaries’ charter admitted ‘all persons desirous of studying medicine’, and a qualification from the Apothecaries allowed one to practise medicine. After much deliberation, it was decided that ‘persons’ did include ‘women’. Garrett Anderson painstakingly assembled the necessary qualifications (no medical school would enrol her on a course). The Society belatedly realised that Elizabeth had every intention of gaining her qualifications and that they risked the wrath of the medical profession for having enabled a woman to get onto the medical register. They wrote to say that Elizabeth would not be able to sit the examinations after all. Elizabeth’s father threatened to sue, and legal counsel advised the Society that their charter did not, in fact, disbar women. Elizabeth got her qualification, set up practice off London’s Edgeware Road and founded the St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children. She became the first woman to receive her MD (from Paris University) and later helped to found the London Medical College for Women. She was elected to the first London School Board and, as a final flourish, became Britain’s first woman mayor, of Aldeburgh. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is a shining example of how we can take the offensive simply by not taking no for an answer; by accomplishing what we have set our hearts on in the face of entrenched opposition.

Changing the Mood is a difficult and essential leadership task. We all quickly recognise the pervading atmosphere, or culture, in any organisation; changing a bad culture can be the hardest thing that leaders are called upon to do. Nelson Mandela changed the mood of a divided South Africa that had just stepped back from the brink of civil war and which faced a future fraught with the likelihood of further inter-racial conflict. Mandela, when standing trial on a charge of high treason for acts of sabotage against the South African state, said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Despite spending twenty-seven years in prison, Mandela emerged with these ideals intact. In 1994, when the country’s first multi-racial elections were held, white South Africans knew that the country’s black majority, disenfranchised for so long by the system of ‘homelands’, would return a predominantly black government. They feared that a repressive white regime would be replaced by a repressive black regime. In fact, Mandela set out on a symbolic campaign of personal forgiveness and set up the ingenious Truth and Reconciliation Committee. He ran the new multi-racial government with a light but decisive touch and set the tone – relaxed, inclusive, cheerful – that would create a new mood in the country.

Boldness of Vision is a leadership skill that we all recognise. Leaders need to have a long-term view of where the organisation is headed. For most organisations that vision need not be dramatic or earth-shattering, but it must be something that people can relate to; something that gives them an understandable purpose. Great leaders from history work on a broader canvass than most organisations. Some have been able to offer a vision that has changed the course of history.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky in 1809. He educated himself from borrowed books, studying at the end of each day’s labours on the farm. He went on to teach himself law, passed his bar examination, and became involved in politics. In 1856 he joined the new Republican Party, recently founded on an anti-slavery platform. He became the first Republican president of the United States in 1860. The issue of slavery threatened to split the country in two: the American Civil War was about to begin. When Lincoln started his presidency he was desperate merely to hold the United States together. The new nation’s radical experiment in republican government was in danger of fragmenting into a collection of loosely associated states; of ceasing to be a nation. Lincoln preferred not to address the issue of slavery in states where it was long-established and sought at first only to prevent the spread of slave ownership into new territories, as America expanded to the west. As the Civil War progressed, he realised that the moral issue was in fact the core issue; that the pragmatic solution of merely holding the states together was no solution. The vision that he offered was suddenly clear in his own mind, as it would soon be in the nation as a whole: ‘a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’
Finally, Making Things Happen is an essential and sometimes underrated attribute of great leaders. A leader’s vision may or may not be that different from the next person’s; what can set them apart is the vigour with which they pursue that strategy. Zhou Enlai is one of history’s great work-horses. He could have become the chairman of the Communist Party of China, but gave his backing to Mao Zedong. When the Party came to power, Zhou served as Premier of the People’s Republic of China for the rest of his life, and spent most of his time trying to reduce the damage done by the succession of foolish (and often murderous) programmes set in train by his boss, Chairman Mao. Zhou argued early on that China needed the input of its intellectuals in order to modernise. Mao briefly espoused this idea, encouraging a campaign of criticism of the Party by intellectuals. When the intellectuals obliged, Mao purged all ‘rightists’ so viciously that that this episode may have been merely a ploy by Mao to flush out his ideological enemies. Mao went on to launch a series of disastrous programmes: the Great Leap Forward introduced agricultural collectivisation on a massive scale and created the world’s worst famine; it also diverted resources on a huge scale to the technologically illiterate idea of manufacturing steel in backyard furnaces. Mao’s cunning plan to exterminate sparrows (blamed for eating grain) led to a plague of locusts (sparrows eat locusts). Throughout this era, Zhou stayed in power, pursuing his moderate and pragmatic agenda and attempting to mitigate the worst effects of Mao’s policies. Mao finally unleashed the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, in which young people were allowed free travel around the country and encouraged to destroy the Four Olds: old customs; old culture; old habits; old ideas. Priceless historical artefacts were destroyed; teachers were beaten; senior officials were denounced and often murdered. Zhou took to sending party members at risk to ‘Hospital No. 301’ – a clinic reserved for senior party officials. They were diagnosed with illnesses sufficiently grave to keep them quarantined until the ‘revolution’ came to end. Zhou came very close to being purged but, as China’s industrial output plummeted, Mao backed off. Zhou began to reassert his modernising agenda and instigated a diplomatic rapprochement with the United States of America. Zhou died in 1976, eight months before his chairman, Mao, who sent no message to his dying comrade. Zhou is seen as one of the fathers of modern China.
The great leaders from history provide many lessons for us all. The skills and attributes needed for successful leadership do not change.

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