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History may hold the secrets of statecraft – but not the secrets of business leadership

Lessons from the battlefield are rarely applicable in the boardroom

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

‘How can one person lead one hundred?’ That was one of the questions in my Cambridge entrance exams back in 1981, and although I can’t now recall whether I tried to answer it in the three hours we were given, it has fascinated me ever since. So when I was given the splendid opportunity of delivering nine Lehrman Institute lectures on military history at the New-York Historical Society three years ago, I used them to try to answer it, at least in terms of war leadership.

What became apparent was what a total waste of time and effort most of the modern ‘leadership skills’ industry is whenever it tries to apply the lessons of war leadership to anything else, and especially business. You know the kind of thing: ‘Attila the Hun’s Top Ten Business Leadership Tips’, ‘What Operation Overlord Can Teach You About Running Your Company’, and so on. The leadership books, motivational speeches circuit, business videos and online courses are a multi-billion-pound industry, but they tend to impart next to nothing of genuine value when they use war leadership as a template.

The ability to speak well in public, for example, is constantly promoted as important to leadership, although neither Napoleon nor Stalin were good orators. The leadership industry promotes the idea that it is important to be of upstanding moral character to motivate employees — witness the recent sacking of the CEO of McDonald’s for dating a junior in the organisation — whereas a glance at history shows that to be ludicrous.  ‘Animal courage was Lord Nelson’s sole merit,’ said Lord Howe of his greatest lieutenant. ‘His private character was most disgraceful.’ Napoleon meanwhile had 27 mistresses, and David Lloyd George, when asked whether he was taking Mrs Lloyd George to the Paris Peace Conference, replied: ‘Would you take sandwiches to a banquet?’

Like nuclear fission, war leadership is a powerful force that can be used for good or evil. It soon became clear in my researches for the lectures — which have now been turned into a short book, Leadership in War — that charisma is a totally artificial construct, something of a harlot’s trick. No one is born charismatic, and if one is looking for the reasons that Adolf Hitler had charisma, one looks to Leni Riefenstahl’s movies, Albert Speer’s rallies, and Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda rather than anything inherent in the Fuhrer himself.


Since democracies can’t censor the news in peacetime like they can in wartime — especially in existential struggles like the second world war — war leadership is necessarily going to be entirely different from the kind of problems faced by a peacetime politician or a CEO in the age of Twitter and social media. Winston Churchill could simply censor the demoralising news of the sinking of the SS Lancastria with the loss of nearly 4,000 lives in June 1940, or the mass panic in Bethnal Green Tube station which killed 173 people in March 1943, or the massacre of 749 American soldiers at Slapton Sands in April 1944. No peacetime leader could do that.

Some modern leadership studies claim that possession of a sense of humour is important, but the absence of one did not stop Margaret Thatcher winning the Falklands War. Working hard is another staple of the leadership industry’s core positive traits but it doesn’t explain why Hitler did well in September 1939 and June 1941 when he was relatively lazy, whereas he did not do so well over the next four years when he was considerably more energetic and engaged.

One area in which modern leadership gurus do tend to get it right is when they emphasise how leaders must consider setbacks not to be career-defining moments. Once I’d finished my lecture series — about Horatio Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall and Margaret Thatcher — I realised that the majority of them had spent time in prison. Nelson was of course profoundly physically disabled. Stalin had spent four years in Siberian exile. Getting past such setbacks was a sign of the resilience needed for leadership, rather like the young CEO who regards early bankruptcy as merely a stage in his career.

What also became clear was how important their mid- to late twenties were in my nine leaders’ lives; the period that they recognised in themselves their potential for greatness. Stalin was 28 when he robbed the Tiflis State Bank of the modern equivalent of more than £3 million, the same age as George Marshall was when he graduated top of his class at the Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Churchill was 25 when he escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria, turning him into an international celebrity, and Nelson was only 21 when he sailed up the San Juan River in Honduras and captured the Castillo Viejo, holding it for six months before blowing it up and evacuating successfully. (He had a head start on the others, having joined the Royal Navy at 12.)

Napoleon was 26 when he captured the bridge at Lodi during the Italian campaign, the occasion of which he later said: ‘I no longer considered myself a mere general, but a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples.’ Margaret Thatcher was also 26 when she cut the Labour majority in Dartford in the 1951 general election. Hitler won the Black Wound Badge and his second Iron Cross aged 29, a year older than Eisenhower when he distinguished himself in his training of tank crews at Camp Colt. These moments of self-realisation about their capacities gave each of them tremendous confidence at a key moment in their lives, yet few of the modern leadership manuals are written for people in their mid-twenties.

‘Study history, study history,’ Churchill told an American student at the time of the 1953 coronation. ‘For therein lies all the secrets of statecraft.’ It is true, but therein does not necessarily lie all the secrets of successful business leadership, despite a huge industry trying to persuade you that it does.


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