What would the Roman Empire have become were it not for Julius Caesar? Would the new South Africa have emerged unscathed from its chequered past without the mindful influence of Nelson Mandela? And what would Silicon Valley be today in the absence of Steve Jobs’ pioneering spirit?
The world as we know it has been shaped by the decisions of just a few influential men and women – great leaders with the ability to alter mindsets, shift perceptions and incite intense passion. Under their guidance, we’ve waged wars, forged peace, explored outer space and taken enormous technological leaps forward.
But while these luminaries of the past might now appear larger than life, none was exactly what anyone would call a perfect leader. Caesar induced homicidal rage in even the closest of his followers. Churchill got bumped out of office after World War II thanks to his ineptitude in handling domestic affairs. And Napoleon’s revolutionary heroics soon degenerated into war-mongering and subsequent abdication.
So what can today’s leaders learn from these icons of history? Was the strength of their influence a result of immense character, good decision making or simple dumb luck? Turns out, it might be a combination of all three.
Luckily, hindsight is 20/20, and today we can look back a little more pragmatically at the successes and failings of the world’s great and less-great trailblazers, deriving key learnings to guide our leadership strategies in the modern age.
Here are a few dos and don’ts courtesy of history’s who’s who:
LISTEN AND LEARN
The success of any leader ultimately hinges on the loyalty of their followers; something Julius Caesar learnt the hard way during his reign over ancient Rome. Despite his undeniable aptitude for empire building, Caesar’s inability to consider the opinions of those around him eventually led to his undoing, his insatiable quest for power blinding him to the needs of those responsible for bringing his vision to fruition. For today’s leaders, it’s vital to remember that any team can only achieve its true potential if all its members are in alignment and committed to the same cause. So make sure to listen and learn from those around you if you wish to maintain a flourishing empire.
INSPIRE AND MOTIVATE
Every leader makes mistakes, but that doesn’t make them unfit to spearhead a team. Just ask Winston Churchill. By all accounts, the man was relatively inept when it came to all matters military, overseeing a disastrous invasion of Gallipoli and essentially blundering his way through a lengthy world war. Yet he is remembered today as a great hero of the Allied war effort largely thanks to his emboldening rhetoric, which he used to great effect throughout World War II to unite a nation and inspire hope. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to be the best at what you do to be an incredible leader – your success will ultimately be measured by your ability to inspire others and to facilitate the fulfillment of their full potential.
When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison after a 27-year period of incarceration, few would have blamed him for wanting to exact revenge on his oppressors. Yet it was a forgiving, compassionate Mandela who walked free in 1990, and who was able to steer a country on the brink of civil war through what was ultimately a peaceful transition into democracy. It was Mandela’s ability to listen, understand and empathise with all his followers that made him such an exemplary and widely respected leader, his capacity for negotiation key to aligning and guiding the creation of a united new South Africa.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
By all accounts, Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly the most agreeable fellow. His directness bordered on rude, and his desire to control his own environment could make things fairly unpleasant for those around him. But despite this, Jobs was able to achieve what many thought impossible, largely due to his unwavering belief that he could accomplish anything – something that eventually spilled over to his employee base. Jobs’ strength was his ability to lead by example, to inspire those around him by refusing to settle for anything less than the best himself. Today’s leaders could certainly stand to take a leaf out of Steve’s book – after all, how can you hold your employees to exacting standards if you don’t adhere to them yourself?