Lessons for the New CEO From 5 Great Leaders of History
From a revolutionary who began life as a slave, to the hero who led South Africa out of apartheid: Learn from the past.
Leading and writing can both be lonely occupations. How does an inexperienced scribe develop his or her voice without guidance? Where should a newly appointed CEO look for counsel on tough decisions? One of early America’s most influential writers and intellectual leaders, Benjamin Franklin, developed his own unique solution: In teaching himself to write, Franklin gathered up essays of thinkers he admired, pored over them and took detailed notes.
Later, he reconstructed their arguments in his own words, comparing them to his idols' and tweaking his work to follow their lead.
By studying those who came before him, Franklin grew into the respected man of letters we know him as today. Just as he did, today's leaders can look to history's great men and women for guidance, too.
When I co-founded Blinkist, I had never led a team before. I found a lot of wisdom in leadership books, but it was lessons from the biographies of history’s greatest leaders that have really stuck with me. Following are five lessons from several of these illustrious folk that have helped me on my journey.
1. Touissaint L’Ouverture: Find your guiding star and never deviate from it.
A former slave inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, Touissaint L’Ouverture defeated the European empires in San Domingo (modern-day Haiti) and expunged slavery from his colony. Early in the revolution, L’Ouverture determined that he would never compromise on one central ideal: the complete abolition of slavery in the colony. This idea governed his actions throughout the revolution, impelling him to fight alongside both the Spanish and French armies. But, make no mistake: L’Ouverture was no turncoat. Instead of simply allying himself with a side with whom he shared cultural traditions or blood, he fought with the army that shared his principles. L’Ouverture succeeded in eradicating slavery by getting clear on his cause and doing whatever was necessary to serve it.
2. Sun Tzu: Observe and adapt to the terrain.
Just as water shapes its course according to the ground over which it flows, a leader needs to learn to adapt to the situation -- which could be the terrain, the enemy or both. The storied Zhou Dynasty philosopher and general, Sun Tzu, counseled that a martial leader should observe the terrain to take advantage of its natural layout and stay alert for startled birds or beasts that might indicate an ambush.
He also advised becoming a student of one's enemies, to know their signs of fatigue or desperation. “When they start to eat their own cattle,” he wrote in The Art of War, “neglect to hang their cooking pots above the campfires and act as though they will not return to their tents, know that they are willing to fight to the death.” Modern-day professional life might not be as extreme as 500 BC China, but Sun Tzu’s basic advice still rings true in its purest form: Study your environment and your competition to make the best of every opportunity.
3. Niccolò Machiavelli: Recruit remarkable guides.
To better understand the new territory you’re navigating, rely on a few trusted guides. In his 16th century treatise The Prince, Niccoló Machiavelli, Renaissance politician and author, held that using advisors well begins with knowing one’s own weaknesses. The next step is to select advisors to offset those weaknesses. Good advisor maintenance doesn’t stop there, though -- it extends into knowing how to solicit advice the right way.
For Machiavelli, that meant showing advisors he valued their honest opinion and would not punish them for giving it. But, at the end of the day, he was the one calling the shots.“The first thing one does to evaluate a ruler’s prudence,” wrote Machiavelli, “is to look at the people around him.” Choose your advisors well and you’ll be the envy of every autocrat.
4. Nelson Mandela: Be the beacon your people need.
Sometimes, pretending to be brave is bravery. Nelson Mandela, social revolutionary, was lauded as a courageous leader -- even when he was truly terrified. A little-known example of Mandela’s ability to master his fear comes from a trip he took on a small plane bound across South Africa. Mid-flight, engine failure forced an emergency landing. The bodyguard who’d accompanied him during the flight afterward described with amazement how calm Mandela had been while their lives were endangered. Mandela had simply read the newspaper the entire time.
Mandela himself, however, later confessed in private that he’d been truly terrified but refused to show it. Mandela knew that courage is a choice, and everyone can be courageous. It doesn’t necessarily mean risking your life, either. Rather, it means learning to cope with your anxieties and fears every day.
5. Abraham Lincoln: Hold your tongue to make your enemies into allies.
Pointing out others’ mistakes rarely encourages them to change their behavior, and it certainly doesn’t help them learn anything. People aren’t driven by reason, but by emotion; so mounting a public critique (even when it's warranted) is far likelier to reflect poorly on you than it is to make them change their ways.
Notorious for publicly criticizing his opponents, Abraham Lincoln learned this lesson the hard way. His public invective against an old political opponent, lobbed by way of a widely circulated paper, nearly forced him into a duel. He was saved only by the desperate pleadings of sensible mutual friends. Lincoln lashed out only once more and then realized that his aggression was doing him no favors. His new policy became one of understanding what drove his opponents, accepting their shortcomings and going easy on the open criticism.
In so doing, Lincoln earned a reputation for clemency and leniency toward his enemies, a practice that transformed even members of the opposing army into friends. During the Civil War, he famously told those who spoke harshly of Southerners, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”
In the end, leading is tough work; why else would investor and author Ben Horowitz call his blog “The Struggle”?
But, struggle or no, you’re never really alone. Hopefully, a little time with these historical leaders can make your time at the top more inspiring than isolating.
Related: 10 Inspirational Presidential Quotes
Holger Seim is CEO and co-founder of the bitesize learning company Blinkist. The Blinkist apps offer key insights from nonfiction books as comprehensive, quick-reads. Holger’s mission is to encourage people to keep learning and reading. His go-to karaoke song is Wonderwall by Oasis.