Lessons To Learn From Historic Leaders | A Journey Through World History |
It can be hard for us to see how history relates to our own lives. We do not notice many similarities between the world today and the world that we read about in our history books. Our ancestors faced different problems with different tools than we do today. Still, one thing remains the same: people. For all that has changed in the world, human nature remains remarkably much like it always has been. Whether you are leading a nation, an army, or just a company, office, or a team, some of the same principles apply. Whether at home or at the workplace or in pursuit of our passion, we all want to become better leaders. But what does it take to get there?
As we strive to become better leaders and learn how to inspire others, we would do well to reflect on the greatest leaders from history to see the characteristics, mentality, and habits that allowed these most revered leaders to challenge norms, empower the oppressed, galvanize action, and spark change. These individuals were not born leaders; they developed leadership habits and followed the inspiring example of those that came before them. We can also develop and foster the habits of leadership within our own lives. So, here are the 12 lessons that we can learn from the Historic leaders.
What Makes You Stand Apart
Benjamin Franklin identified Thirteen Critical Virtues necessary for a successful life and vowed to exemplify them. George Washington is admired for his honesty, and Gandhi demonstrated remarkable restraint and self-discipline in his use of non-violent protest to drive change. If you read about the historical leaders like George Washington, Ben Franklin, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, you can conclude that their character stood out and earned them respect, built trust with others, and translated to a highly regarded reputation.
Don’t Be A Victim
We can rise above poverty, lack of education, or lack of support to achieve greatness. Charlie Chaplin grew up in the direst circumstances, yet he revolutionized silent films. Men and women, who had once been slaves and peasants, overcame the odds to become generals, emperors, and queens. While challenges can sometimes feel overwhelming, the stories of remarkable historical leaders prove that even when everything seems hopeless, determination, passion, and grit can overcome the odds.
The 18th US president Ulysses S. Grant had an egotistical and self-promoting father, who was always caught up in some scheme or scandal. Grant knew that was not who he wants to be. In response, he developed a cool and calm self-confidence which became the source of his greatness. Before the civil war, Grant experienced a long chain of setbacks and financial difficulties. At one point, he was selling firewood for a living. It was a hard fall for a graduate of west point. An army buddy found him and asked shockingly, God grant what are you doing? On this grant replied – I am solving the problem of poverty. That’s the answer of a confident person, a person at peace even in difficulty. People keep complaining that their job or whatever they do for a living is not well enough for them that they deserve something better. But shaping your future while embracing your present with open arms is a tough task. Leaders understand this fact very well. So always remember You are Not a Victim of Your Circumstances, you can rise above them.
Can you keep up in times of crisis?
You must be bold, and you must accept that you will sometimes fail. Failing can be an important stop on the route to success. Lincoln lost a number of elections, including the Illinois Senate race in 1858, yet he ran for President in 1860. Washington struggled to win a major battle against the British for years, yet he had the courage to stay the course. Gandhi, King, and Mandela were humiliated for many years on their paths toward civil rights and representation. Facing an occasional failure is a sign that you took on challenges, pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone, and it is an opportunity to prove your resilience and willingness to learn from your mistakes.
For example the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is most celebrated for his role in keeping the nation together during the Civil War and signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped to end slavery in the United States. His leadership exemplified determination and is a reminder that great leaders must remain persistent, even when others do not believe in your vision as a leader. Lesson #3 Powerful persistence
Are You In Control?
Lincoln had just one year of formal education, but he read constantly to feed his curiosity and continued to expand his knowledge. Franklin devised ways to improve his character by evaluating himself daily, assessing one character trait each day. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were relentless in their routines to develop their skills and conditioning. The stories of great leaders of the past up to the present teach us that our potential is boundless if we are willing to push ourselves. Achieving greatness as a leader means having the passion and drive to continuously transform yourself and expand your boundaries. Nobody will do that for you. To become a leader that can inspire others and provoke action, you must first be willing to lead yourself. Lesson #4 Self-Discipline is necessary
Lesson number 5 maintain Your Flexibility and be a good listener
The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the single most terrifying moment of the Cold War. When US spy planes brought reports of nuclear missiles to the White House in 1962, many of Kennedy’s close advisors advocated for a full military invasion of Cuba. However, President John F. Kennedy insisted on hearing everyone’s different points of view before deciding how to deal with the Soviet challenge in Cuba. Interestingly he had also just read Barbara Tuchman’s classic book on the outbreak of the First World War, which showed how easily leaders can make mistakes and stumble into a conflict they did not really want. After listening to everyone and analyzing all the options, he decided not to act desperately and instead of invading Cuba he opted for a naval blockade and negotiations with Soviet leaders, all while planning for a possible invasion if these tactics failed. In the end, the blockade worked, and the US was able to avoid nuclear war. If Kennedy had opted for military invasion right away, who knows what might have happened? As many as seventy million people were expected to die in the first strikes between the United States and Russia.
If we hear the tapes and see the transcripts and photos taken during the Cuban missile crisis, we can notice that despite the enormous stress of the situation everyone was collaborative and open to suggestions. No fighting, no raised voices, no finger pointing at all. Kennedy did not let his ego dominate the discussions. Whenever he sensed that his presence was stifling his advisor’s ability to speak honestly, he left the room so they could debate and brainstorm freely. Reaching across party lines and past rivalries, he consulted openly with the three still-living ex-presidents and invited the previous secretary of state, Dean Acheson into the top-secret meetings as an equal.
As Kennedy demonstrates, choosing good and independent subordinates and listening to their advice carefully is a safeguard against making bad decisions. Be careful of those big decisions that commit you down a certain path. If someone is causing trouble, look for other ways of resolving that issue before taking the permanent and bold step. Don’t commit yourself to a strategic path without first evaluating all of the options available to you.
Words have power
Lloyd George, who was one of the greatest British orators, once said: “I reach out my hand to the people and draw them to me. Like children, they seem then.” Winston Churchill’s rhetoric in the Second World War can sound overblown today, but it was what the British people needed at the time.
It may be sacrilege to say in some circles, but in many respects, Winston Churchill was not that impressive a leader. He did not always have a great military mind, as evidenced by the disastrous Gallipoli invasion he planned in World War I. His leadership on domestic issues was so poor at times that the citizens of the UK. Voted him out of office as soon as World War II ended. Still, when it counted the most, Churchill led Great Britain to stand against the monolithic German war machine. It all became possible because of Churchill’s inspiring rhetoric. Everyone predicted that a sustained bombing raid such as the German Blitz would totally demoralize a civilian population, but emboldened by Churchill’s words, the people of London carried on with the war effort.
For becoming a good communicator, it is important to understand your audience. There may not be a need for Churchill levels of rhetoric at your workplace, but well-placed words of encouragement can boost the morale of those who are working under you. It does make a difference to have something to say. Lesson #6 be a good communicator
Understand How Your Subordinates Feel
Gaius Julius Caesar was undoubtedly a great leader. His military victories made Rome one of the largest empires in history, and his political leadership made it one of the most prosperous. Unfortunately, Caesar neglected to pay enough attention to those serving under him, namely the Senate. He constantly ignored the Senate’s wishes as he grabbed dictatorial power until even his friend Brutus was willing to kill him. Leaders today probably don’t risk assassination, but they can still be “sacked” or asked to step down. Failure to listen to people who work under you still has significant consequences.
If people don’t feel like you’re listening to them or respecting their positions, they may choose to ignore your requests, or even leave you in times of crisis. Lesson #7 Understand How Your Subordinates Feel
Lesson #8 The importance of Humble Sacrifice
Nelson Mandela was a visionary leader who believed that forgiveness was more important than revenge. He fought against the existing political system called apartheid. It was a political and social system in South Africa during the era of white minority rule. It enforced racial discrimination against non-Whites, mainly focused on skin color and facial features. As the first South African president elected in fully democratic elections, Mandela helped his country in moving past an era of the oppressive system after serving almost 30 years in prison. He did not seek revenge on those who wronged him. His commitment to justice and peace, even after being imprisoned for so many years, is a reminder that great leaders must often sacrifice their personal comfort and leave their personal issues to accomplish their goals.
Lesson #9 Do not start to believe your own propaganda
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, was the rare leader possessing great power who knew his own limitations. It is said that he issued a standing order that any instruction he gave in the evenings – when partied with his friends – should be ignored. However, history has far more examples of leaders who thought that they are flawless and are incapable of making any mistakes. With most of Europe lying at his feet, Napoleon came to think he was invincible. He found himself trapped in a pointless and costly war in Spain. Then in order to humiliate young Tsar Alexander, he invaded Russia, the mistake that led to his eventual downfall.
Adolf Hitler had a string of successes – the seizing of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the defeat of France, the partition of the center of Europe with the Soviet Union – all of this convinced him that he was flawless and invincible. Against his generals’ advice, he followed Napoleon into Russia. When German troops encountered resistance, Hitler refused to let them retreat. It was the beginning of the end. Maybe because of this very same reason in ancient Rome when a successful leader enjoyed a triumphal march, a slave stood behind him and whispered in his ear: “Remember you are human.
Lesson #10 Beware of the traps that power lays
The French talk about “déformation professionnelle”, Sorry if I pronounced it wrong- basically It is a tendency to look at things from the point of view of one’s own profession or special expertise, rather than from a broader or humane perspective. Before the First World War, the German General Staff were told to develop plans to ensure Germany’s victory, if necessary against France and Russia at the same time. They came up with a brilliant and detailed plan to fight a holding action against Russia in the East and, by throwing the bulk of their forces against France in the West, to make both of them surrender as quickly as possible. This decision made military sense and so German troops invaded neutral Belgium on their way to Paris. However, politically it was a disastrous decision. Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality brought Britain into the war, virtually ensuring its defeat.
Power is dangerous, because those who hold it start to think that they can do whatever they want. Think of Richard Nixon trying to use the institutions of the American government to shut down the Watergate scandal. Or the American war in Vietnam that lasted for almost 20 years.
In the 1960s the United States was the most powerful economic and military power in the world. Its leaders assumed they could easily overwhelm North Vietnam and bring its leaders to the bargaining table. They did not bother to wonder whether their enemies and their Vietnamese allies might have different ideas. Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense at the time, later said, “Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area and the personalities and habits of their leaders.” So it is important to hold and use power with a sense of responsibility.
Lesson number 11 Know when to step down and always have a succession plan
Voluntarily giving up power is one of the hardest things to do. Yet, as the old joke has it, graveyards are full of people whose tombstones read: “They thought they were indispensable. The 16th century Emperor Charles V who voluntarily stepped down as Holy Roman Emperor and retired to a monastery is highly unusual. Alexander the Great built one of the largest empires in history in just a few short years, and it fell apart just as quickly. As soon as Alexander died, his generals carved up his empire into pieces. An old and increasingly frail Winston Churchill should not have tried to be prime minister again in 1951. His government drifted, while his chosen successor Anthony Eden grew increasingly resentful.
Far more often, leaders have chosen to stay on when they should have bowed out. Without intending to, they often undo much of their own work and cause problems for their successors. Every leader wants to build something that lasts, and that means finding someone to take over once you step down. Failure to do so can mean the undoing of your life’s work in just a few short years.
Now the final Leeson – If you can sense the way the currents of history are flowing, you may be able to ride them
Prince of Bismarck known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative German statesman who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871 and served as its first chancellor until 1890. He dominated European politics for almost two decades.
Bismarck famously said that a statesman “must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment”. And he did exactly that when he maneuvered across the chessboard of Europe to create the new state of Germany. Effective leaders can manage day-to-day issues without losing sight of the bigger picture. Like I earlier said embracing your present no matter how bad is it while simultaneously planning your future. That is where a knowledge of history helps, as it shows patterns amidst all the noise of current events and reminds of possibilities other than those we are used to.
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