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Legendary Leadership Lessons


Admiral Lord Nelson, Gandhi, and JFK. All “leadership legends” who are looked up to, quoted, and studied but are they really legends or leadership myths? Simon Hollington looks at the lessons to be learned from these great leaders.

Admiral Lord Nelson
Nelson was courageous, determined, a demanding task-master, a visionary and, of course, successful. For me though, the real skill he had was combining a focus on the task, management, visionary leadership and attention to the welfare of his men.

At Trafalgar, the British fleet was able to fire its guns twice as fast as the combined French and Spanish fleet, the result of months of practice. So lesson one is that he got the basics of the business right, and made sure that everyone did likewise.

What Nelson is not so well-known for is his management. He spent hours every day in correspondence, understood the pulse of his organisation and studied modern methods of warfare. He planned, thought, organised, communicated, delegated and controlled. Nelson was a micro-manager until he was sure his team (his “Band of Brothers” as he called them) was capable, and then he gave them great autonomy. lesson two - get your team right, develop them and then get out of their way!

Nelson is perhaps best known for his visionary leadership and his panache at sea. But a study of him reveals that he was not always so capable. It has been suggested by some that he only got into the Royal Navy because of patronage from his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, who took Nelson at 12 to sea. Captain Suckling also sat on Nelson’s Lieutenant’s examination panel. However, the one thing that Nelson did above all others in his early years was to learn. He constantly sought different experiences even spending a year on a merchant ship. He also constantly challenged perceived wisdom and himself. It was this early challenge that developed into the visionary and unorthodox approach for which he is so well known. Lesson three - put time and effort into your own learning. Challenge yourself to be and do better.

Nelson really did look after his men. Hard task-master he might have been but he spent considerable time and resources ensuring that they were well fed. In those days it was typical for some 10% of any ship’s crew to be ill. When Victory went into battle at Trafalgar, only one man out of the ship’s complement of 840 was ill. Fresh meat, lemons and vegetables had been brought from Sardinia to ensure that everyone was looked after. That after Trafalgar men who had never met him wrote home to say that they wished they had died rather than Nelson is testament to his status. So lesson four look after your staff. After all they produce the goods and services that make your business successful.

Mohondras Gandhi
While Nelson gained his reputation from war fighting, Gandhi gained his from peaceful protest. Shy, awkward and nervous as a boy, he failed at college, eventually took up law but then failed again as a lawyer in Bombay where the robust interactions were beyond him. Moving to South Africa he had a seminal experience that was to transform his life. On 7 June 1893 he was thrown off a train for sitting in the same carriage as a white lady despite having bought a first class ticket. That sense of injustice fuelled his life thereafter. But as a leader, Gandhi can be considered to be a failure. He set out with three objectives in mind: independence, a united sub-continent, and the removal of the caste system. Only the first has come about, and that’s not a success rate associated with leaders.

Gandhi was, however, a master of communication: he was prepared to talk to those who opposed him, and he was also prepared to lead by example. Recognising that the rulers (in South Africa and in the Indian Empire) had the upper hand when it came to guns and power, he sought an alternative weapon - Satyagraha - or steadfastness in truth that came to symbolise non-violent resistance. What he never fully took into account was that it relied upon a positive and continuous interaction between parties with the aim of reconciliation. He practised that - others didn’t. A great example of his approach was that even during the troubles in South Africa, when he was continually harassed and jailed by the authorities, he kept up a steady correspondence with Jan Smuts the Prime Minister and met him readily. He did not see Smuts as an opponent, just another player on the field. Lesson one - make sure you are playing on the same playing field as your partners.

Once Gandhi embarked on his Satyagraha movement, it became his answer to everything. He called several national strikes in India that failed (there was almost no disruption to normal life) and he regularly used fasts as a way of bringing pressure to bear. He became a politician but was unsuccessful in his attempts to sway Congress, so he reverted to living a simple life. What he failed to realise is that he could afford to do so because of the amount of support that he had and because of his back up team. Others were less fortunate. Gandhi was also horrified at what he saw as the moral degradation in Indian Society and really could not see what caused others to have less perseverance and vision than he did. Here was another example of being unable to put himself in others shoes. Lesson Two - put yourself in others shoes. Just because you are able to see the need doesn’t mean others can. What might be right from where you sit may be viewed in a very different light from elsewhere.

Perhaps the most revealing insight into Gandhi comes from a study of his aims. While he was able, eventually - and with the assistance of a World War that transformed the old world order - to see the day when British rule gave way, he had set his sights on two other aims that were well beyond his control. He wanted desperately to get rid of the caste system but that remains a deeply ingrained aspect of Indian Society. The same is true of his desire to keep India whole. Both aims were outside his area of influence. Lesson Three - make sure your aims are achievable. Don’t set out to limit yourself but at the same time make sure your goals are attainable. In Gandhi’s case, he simply wasn’t able to influence the millions needed to achieve his aims.

J F Kennedy
The death of JFK is one of those events that I remember vividly - I was standing in our front garden at the time and my elder brother told me that he’d been shot. Even at the age of 11, I was shocked. A war hero, modest, charming, intelligent, determined and an optimist, he was the first young leader of modern history and was in stark contrast to his counterparts: MacMillan, De Gaulle and Khrushchev - who were leaders from the age of war.

Kennedy had studied assiduously the dilemmas of democratic leaders who often had to choose between right and right and he had significant self- awareness. A study of his campaign plans first to get elected to congress and then to win the presidency is a fascinating study of strategy. As a white, liberal, northern Catholic, there were significant barriers for him to overcome, but overcome them he did. Choosing the southern Lyndon Johnson as his running mate he put together a pairing that, together with his stance on civil liberties, unified votes across the political spectrum. So Lesson One - be self aware. Don’t pretend that you can be all things to all men, but instead form a team that together covers all your bases, and Lesson Two - if you want to institute great change or tackle a great project, plan your campaign carefully.

If there was one thing that JFK was a master at, it was the long game. What is often forgotten when looking at US politics is the balance of power. Unlike the UK where the Prime Minister comes from the party with the most MPs, power is shared by the President and the two houses. While the Democrats held power in the Senate that did not mean that JFK had an easy ride. Many would say that his greatest skill was influencing Congress and in 1963 he was finally confident enough to say that his major reforms - tax, civil rights and medical care for the aged - would finally be enacted in 1964 and 1965. Lesson Three - change takes time. Make sure you know what you want, why you want it, work out how to get it, and then be prepared to play the long game to get it.

JFK was a leader who was courageous. Nowhere is this more ably demonstrated than during his handling of the Cuba Missile Crisis. At the height of the Cold War, with nuclear missiles on America’s doorstep, there was considerable pressure from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff for military action, and the expectation was that this young war hero would bow to pressure from his senior and older military advisers. Instead he listened carefully to arguments from both sides, spent a great deal of time considering options and looking for ways to avoid escalation. The temptation to go for the apparently easy route - a Cuban invasion - was immense, but he stuck to his beliefs and diplomacy won the day. Lesson Four - make sure you know what you stand for as a leader and don’t compromise on that no matter what the pressures. It is your values that will mark you out as a leader so don’t play fast and loose with them!

Finally (although there is much more to JFK’s leadership than can be covered in this short note) I ought to point out that JFK was no paragon of virtues. Much has been made since his death of his affairs and he did have failings as a leader. JFK had considerable intellect and was widely read - a legacy from his time laid up with a bad back throughout his life. As a result he had a tendency to look down and dismiss those who were not as quick as he was. He relied heavily on his brother Bobby and some would say that his team - good though it was - was too incestuous. So Lesson Five beware of having too close a team. Be prepared to have people in it that aren’t your natural first choice. Naysayers (as Shakespeare called them) are a great strength to you - provided you listen to them. They present an opposite view that can balance your own bias.

We shall of course never know whether these leaders would have stood the test of time had their lives not been cut short. History is replete with leaders who did not manage to maintain their status over time. Studies of past leaders provide a fascinating insight into the past but we must remember that decisions taken and lessons learned are based on the situation at the time. What every aspiring leader must do is to translate them into their own situation and use the principles that underlie the history. That, above all, is what we can learn from the great and the good of the past.

About the author: Simon Hollington is Chairman of Values Based Leadership Ltd, a company that works with organisations from all sectors to create and run development programmes that improve business performance.


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