MacDonald Shaw

MacDonald Shaw asked me to write a piece on leadership for their magazine. Here it is:

As a young man, Winston Churchill sat the entrance exam to Sandhurst’s Royal Military College three times before he passed. He is known as one the greatest leaders of the century and was prime minister of Britain twice. Margaret Thatcher sought help from a voice coach to speak in way that would command respect. Abraham Lincoln, arguably the United States finest president, invited his rivals to work beside him. One of them – Edwin M. Stanton – publicly called Lincoln a ‘long-armed ape’. Lincoln appointed him Leader of the War Department.

Churchill’s persistence, Thatcher’s ambitiousness and Lincoln’s strategic savvy are part of their legacy. While great leaders don’t share the exact same combination of attributes they teach us these things:

Talking matters. If you can’t get people fired-up about your vision – however small or large it is – you’ll have no one to lead. Great leaders are great orators.

Know your audience. Gandhi preferred calm clarity and directness. He understood the importance of making complex ideas comprehensible without being patronising, especially when pitching to a diverse audience. Abraham Lincoln spoke as though among likeminded friends. Martin Luther King Jr, Emily Pankhurst and Nelson Mandela spoke with passion to their impassioned followers.

Repeat yourself. Winston Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches is a lesson in slamming a message home through judicious repetition (‘we shall fight, we shall fight, we shall fight, we shall never surrender’). Three repeats is traditionally the charm.

Ask rhetorical questions. John F. Kennedy asked, ‘Will you join in that historic effort?’ Charles de Gaulle said, ‘Must hope disappear? Is defeat final?’ And Whitlam asked, ‘Would you trust your international affairs again to the men who gave you Vietnam?’ The listener may not answer aloud but it turns a monologue into a conversation nonetheless.

Spin a yarn. Ronald Regan was a master at using story and metaphor to make his messages accessible and emotional.

Place your goals in a lofty context. If you can compare what you and your team are doing with a great moment in history without sounding foolish, do so. Countless leaders have made direct reference to historical events to inspire followers and elevate their goals.

Have something to say. Have a goal and a plan so you can tell people exactly what you want and what their role is in making it happen. Fidel Castro said, ‘If I had to do it (start a revolution) again, I’d do it with ten or fifteen men and absolute faith. It doesn’t matter how small you are if you have faith and a plan of action.’

Don’t just say it. Theodore Roosevelt explained it best: ‘Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind.’ Words inspire with their intent but deeds inspire because they take courage. Rosa Parks sent an eloquent message by refusing to sit where she’d been told.

Know your product… Gandhi studied in London so that when he came up with his policy of non-violent resistance to the English colonists it was rooted in a clear understanding of economics and civil disobedience. Having said that, knowledge doesn’t always require a university degree. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard but succeeded as an autodidact.

…then come up with a better one. ‘Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,’ according to Steve Jobs.

Persist. Every great leader failed repeatedly en route to their goal. As a student at Yale, Fred Smith received a mediocre mark for his business idea of delivering parcels overnight. This was the first of many setbacks but Smith trusted his instincts, persisted, and founded FedEx.

Great leaders push through obstacles and prejudices (Golda Meir’s gender, Obama’s race, Lech Walesa’s poverty). They embrace hard times. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, started his first term in office at the beginning of the Second World War. Even age is no obstacle to becoming successful. Colonel Sanders founded his business KFC when he was sixty-five.

While he wasn’t a leader, playwright Samuel Beckett’s words offer sage advice to those who would lead: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Surround yourself with the best people, both friends and enemies. They’ll feed you new ideas, keep your energy and interest high, be good in the areas you lack, and challenge you. Bandleader Count Basie led his jazz orchestra for almost fifty years during which time he regularly invited talented musicians in for short stints and encouraged collaborations. President Lincoln, in addition to appointing the insulting Mr Stanton made room in his cabinet for three men who’d run against him in an 1860 election.

Treat your people well.

Listen. Good ideas can come from anywhere. And if people aren’t listened to, they leave or spread malcontent. Bill Clinton is famed for winning people over by holding eye contact and making them feel as if they are the only interesting person in the room.

Remember that everyone matters. A conductor knows that the ting of a humble triangle can make a symphony complete.

Notice successes and praise them. Despite his ruthlessness, ex-CEO at General Motors Jack Welch was one of the best modern-day business leaders. He said, ‘Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing that I can do. Because then they will act.’ 

Share credit. Shoulder blame. Great leaders wear it when their subordinates fail. ‘It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership,’ said Nelson Mandela.

Carry yourself like a leader. Leaders stand solid in a storm. It’s hard to recover once people see you lose your temper or nerve. And fear is infectious – no leader wants a cowed team.

Julius Caesar had confidence bordering on arrogance, but he carried himself like a leader at all times. When travelling to Rhodes, he was captured by pirates. For more than a month he stayed with them and acted as their superior rather than their prisoner, even demanding they raise the insultingly small ransom they’d requested for him. Once he was freed, he took the ransom money and had the pirates executed.

Leaders maintain their focus and passion. Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland’s Solidarity Movement, was known for his ability to read the mood of the public, see what it was hankering for, and put himself forward as the man who could make it happen. He became the figurehead of the peoples’ movement, and finally Poland’s first non-communist president. Throughout, despite describing himself as lazy, he never lost the ability to speak about his goals with enthusiasm.

Last, learn from your own work history. Unless you’re unusually lucky, you’ve worked alongside a less-than-magnificent manager. Every moment that left you slack-jawed with disbelief – the poor timing, the awkward dismissals, the boardroom tantrum, the sloppy document – or starry-eyed with admiration is a lesson. As the truism has it, the greatest leaders don’t create followers, they create other leaders.


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