Thursday, January 29, 2015

Leadership Lessons from History

While in Washington, D.C. today for a meeting, I took some time to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The museum was fascinating, and along the way, I couldn't help but think about some of the leadership lessons that emerged from some of the exhibits. Here are but a few:

Lesson #1: Helping Constituents Connect Their Efforts with a Larger Purpose

Leaders often have to ask their followers to do things that are outside of their comfort zone; they ask for them to tread into uncharted territory, or give of themselves in a way that is new and unknown. As this wartime poster shows, it is vital to help your followers connect their efforts with a larger purpose so that they will know how their work has meaning. During WWII, this was done by producing posters like this one that helped the local consumers understand that each war bond they bought would be pivotal in helping to provide supplies for paramarines. By letting the consumers know that each cent they spent made a real impact in clothing, feeding, and equipping the nation's soldier's, these posters allowed the leaders of the day to speak into the hearts of consumers and influence them to spend money on something that they likely would not have bought had they not known the meaning behind it. In the same way, the leaders of today need to find creative ways to show their followers the value and meaning behind every task that they do. Just as this poster highlighted a concrete way that a small action (i.e. buying a small war bond) could have, so, too, must leaders constantly be on the lookout for how to tell the "story" of their organization and the individual tasks that make all the difference.

Lesson #2: Creating Guiding Coalitions to Enact Change

Another lesson I saw that emerged from these exhibits was the importance of having a guiding coalition to help a leader. As John Donne masterfully reminded us, "no man is an island," and this truth is even more profound for leaders. No leader can truly go it alone without the aid of people around him who provide counsel and use their own influence to help the leader enact positive change. 

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington had to create just such a guiding coalition from many disparate groups. First, he had to unify recruits from across many colonies whose interests were vastly different. Today, we think of America as a unified nation, but at the time, people saw themselves as Virginians, or Pennsylvanians first and foremost--their identity was tied to their colony. So, Washington had to work hard to instill a sense of national pride in his army. But he also had to form alliances with American Indian tribes and French diplomats, and his skill at melding these two groups into his overall war strategy played a pivotal role in allowing the Americans to succeed. Both groups provided unique strengths that Washington desperately needed, and so, it was important that he form a "guiding coalition" not just of people from each colony, but also of Indians and French.

Today's leaders can learn much from Washington's diplomacy during this period. Just as Washington had to unite disparate groups behind a common goal, so, too, must today's leaders unite differing constituents behind common organizational goals. This is especially true in times of change, when the leader will need the gravitas of others in the organization to help him convince others to change the status quo. 

Lesson #3: Leaders Need to Find Ways to Speak Directly to their People

Yet another lesson I learned was that leaders must speak directly to their people in compelling ways. As an unknown author once noted, "A leader without followers is simply going on a walk." Thus, to ensure that the leader influences his people to act, he must speak to them in terms they will connect with and in ways that that will capture their imaginations. 

Franklin Roosevelt was a master at this type of connection with followers. He utilized a fairly new technology--the radio--to speak directly to the American people in a way that no President had done before. His calm, conversational style allowed him to quell the fears of listeners who were going through grave financial difficulties during the Great Depression. Later, these same "fireside chats" from Roosevelt helped the common American understand why it was important to go to war and how they could be a part of the "arsenal of democracy." 

In much the same way, leaders of today must find ways to directly speak to their constituents and tell the story of the organization's future. They must find unique ways to speak into the lives of their followers and not just quell their followers' fears, but give them hope for the future. 

Lesson #4: Leaders Should Publicly Recognize Followers' Achievements

I will share one final lesson I learned today: that leaders must seek out ways to publicly recognize the sacrifices and achievements of their followers. Leaders are only as good as the followers who enact their vision, and so, it is important to publicly recognize the contributions made by people on the "front lines" of the operation. 

The American military has known the importance of this concept from the very beginning, and the Medal of Honor (pictured here) is just one of the many ways that the military publicly honors people whose sacrifice for their country was truly awe-inspiring.

While leaders in business or academia may not hand out medals like the military does, it is still important for a leader to find ways to practically and publicly recognize the best achievements of their followers. By doing so, they let everyone in the organization know that their contributions are valued, and that each person in the organization plays a vital role in the success of the overall operation.

Closing Thoughts

We can learn a great deal about leadership from history, as evidenced by the lessons I learned today at the Smithsonian. It is important for leaders not just to look at the latest fads from today, but also study the time-honored lessons of leadership which can be found in the lives of those who went before. Because I think this is so very important, we have created a course in DBU's Master of Arts in Leadership program called "Great Leaders in History." It provides a look at the lives of 20 unique and noteworthy leaders, and allows us to delve into the many core principles that can be gleaned from their lives. It is truly a unique opportunity to learn from some of the best and brightest in our nation's history and in the history of the world.

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