Lessons in Leadership from History

When we think of great leaders, luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill or Dalai Lama come to our minds. But what makes them great? Do their lives offer lessons in to leadership? How well do these lessons translate to the Board room? Fareed Zakaria interviews Pulitzer prize winner Doris Goodwin, Rep. John Lewis, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Bill Gates on his show Global Public Square on CNN (Aired on 7/7/2019).


President Franklin Roosevelt came from a very wealthy family. He contracted Polio at the age of 39. This debilitating disease had a significant impact on Roosevelt’s leadership style and the humility that came with it enabled him to understand the plight of common man for whom fate had dealt an unkind hand (vis-à-vis the Great Depression).

When he had visitors at the White House, he would know who they were, he knew how to talk to them, get them relaxed,talk about their families and by the end of the evening, he would get to know everything about the issues that were important to them.

For leaders, decision making without empathy can be disastrous. The original responses to the two recent Boeing 737 Max accidents from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg did not empathize with the plight of the families who have lost their loved ones. Boeing went on to great lengths in denying any knowledge of safety issues and defending their safety record. Boeing suffered the consequences for not showing empathy, humility and for their poor crisis management skills. Their share value dropped by more than 20% following the aftermath. It is yet to receive any new orders for the 737 Max.

Self Restraint

Abraham Lincoln became very frustrated with General Meade when he failed to pursue and destroy General Lee’s Confederate Army against his advise. That could have ended the war. So Lincoln drafted a brutal letter criticizing the actions of the General. Here’s a snippet from that letter

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape– He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with the our other late successes, have ended the war– As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more then two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it–

I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself– As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.

Abraham Lincoln to George G. Meade, Tuesday, July 14, 1863 (Meade’s failure to pursue Lee)

But Abraham Lincoln never sent this letter out. He knew that it would devastate the General. Lincoln leveraged this strategy to calm him tempers and not let his judgment overcome his emotions. This letter was never made public in his life time and had was annotated with the phrase “To Gen. Meade, Never sent, or signed.”

One of Franklin Roosevelt’s initial drafts of his famous Fireside chats start with lambasting an isolationist congressman, naming him and calling him a traitor. A young speech writer concerned by the draft was then assured by a senior to just wait for the next set of drafts. By the second draft, the congressman’s name was taken out. By the third draft, the congressman’s portrayal wasn’t bad anymore. By the final draft everything is sweetness in life.

Leaders aren’t immune to emotions but they have developed a set of tools to manage them and not let their emotions get the best of them.

Pulitzer prize-winning historian Doris Goodwin, Rep. John Lewis, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Bill Gates on leadership with Fareed Zakaria GPS (July 7 2019)

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