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What can we learn from Greatest Leaders of History

The past is another country but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the leadership styles of some of our forebears and how they may be applied in a modern context.
Learn from Greatest Leaders Winston Churchill

September 6, 2017

There are so many lessons that can be gleaned from studying those who have led in the past. They all aspired to achieve high goals, they were extremely resilient in the face of often overwhelming odds and they all understood the value of compassion.

Lead from the front

Horatio Nelson was all about leading from the front. He led the shore attack on Corsica and lost an eye.  He was so badly wounded leading another charge on Tenerife his arm needed to be amputated. He led a boarding party that captured two Spanish ships at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. As a result, he won his men’s loyalty.

 

The power of words

When Britain’s back was against the wall and leadership counted the most, Winston Churchill found it within him to lead the country’s stand against the Germany’s offensive. He was able to inspire the loyalty of his nation not least because of his ability to write and deliver inspiring rhetoric. When it was predicted that a sustained attack like the German Blitz would leave the civilian population completely demoralized, Churchill’s powerful language galvanized the people to carry on in spite of all the suffering. Well-formed and powerfully delivered words can do wonders for morale.

 

Have compassion

Mahatma Gandhi has long been considered one of the world’s most compassionate leaders for his belief that it is possible to shake the world in a gentle way. He was able to show simpatico with the plight of others. Being able to show compassion and empathy is integral to leadership. It aids connection with those who are being led, while these people appreciate being shown interest and care.

Take the offensive (and don’t take “no” for an answer)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had to take on the 19th Century’s medical establishment to be able to practise medicine. None of the examining bodies would give her the qualification she needed because she was a woman. She took the offensive, discovered a loophole in the Society of Apothecaries’ charter that said “all persons” could study medicine, and persisted. Eventually, with a qualification from the Apothecaries, Anderson was able to practise. She was then able to found the St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children, she became the first woman to receive a medical degree from Paris University and later helped set up the London Medical College for Women.

 

Keep on learning

There is a lot to learn from Nelson Mandela. One lesson that stands out is the great belief he had in lifelong learning. As well as the University of South Africa, he attended the University of London as well as the University of Fort Hart. He believed passionately that a willingness to continue to learn and grow from our experiences provides a much wider understanding of people and ideas, which in turn enables to become wiser leaders.

With his knowledge, Mandela was able to change the previously entrenched mood of a South Africa that was fractured and had stepped back from civil war. After 27 years in jail, Mandela’s ideals were intact, and he was able to create, for a time, a relaxed, cheerful and inclusive country.

Bold vision

Leaders require the capacity to see long-term where their organisation is going. It needs to be a vision to which people can relate and which gives them purpose. Abraham Lincoln, from humble beginnings, came to realise the moral issue of slavery facing his country was the core problem. The vision he offered was that the country needed to be conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that everyone is created equal. The idea has inspired the democratic world ever since.

Understand how your subordinates feel

Julius Caesar led his armies to military victories that made Rome one of history’s largest empires and then provided political leadership that made Rome one of the most prosperous empires in history. What Caesar taught us is that, even with these successes, if you consistently neglect those serving beneath you – as Caesar did with his Senate’s demands – then you will ultimately be dismantled from power. Failure to listen to employees can have significant consequences.

 

Remain flexible

Possibly one of John F Kennedy’s greatest political manoeuvres was how he reacted when US spy planes discovered nuclear missiles sited on Cuba in 1962. While close advisors advocated military invasion of the island, JFK held off and opted instead for a naval blockade combined with negotiating with his Soviet counterparts, meanwhile planning for a possible full-scale invasion if his preferred tactics failed. His plan worked and the world escaped nuclear war.

This teaches us that we need to play carefully when decisions could commit us to go down a dangerous path. There is more than one way of resolving issues.

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