Leadership Lessons Learned from the Legends of Change Leadership
“Men make history…not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
In a chaotic world of rapid, revolutionary change, learning to adapt, manage and lead the change process is essential to survival. History is spilling over with the bones and unmarked tombstones of leaders who failed to anticipate and adapt to change. And, yet, the rate and magnitude of change that the world is being hurled through today is unlike anything humankind has ever before experienced. Wisdom, agility, and expertise in the area of change leadership are as essential to leaders today as a reliable map and navigational tools are to the sailor. All leaders must learn to navigate change, but all of the truly great leaders today are masters of leading change, revolutionary change. Whether international, institutional or organizational change, a mass movement, a world-wide protest, or a nonviolent revolution; learning to lead and organize people and resources around a constructive, creative, and dynamic shared vision of change is indispensable to success.
By drawing on the legends of change leadership, the world’s great revolutionary change leaders, we can begin to identify the principles and patterns that all significant change, all movements and revolutions, share in common. By drawing out the stories of these masters of change and revolution, by tapping into their experience and insights, we can uncover the wisdom and discover the secrets to helping a rich variety of leaders—from entrepreneurs who are seeking to build momentum around a new product or innovation to protestors seeking to alter society’s rules of the game to political leaders seeking elected office or even a chance at winning the White House.
With the ultimate hope and determination to build a better life and a better world, the lessons we can learn from the legends of revolutionary change leadership are indispensable to your success. As Niccolò Machiavelli said: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”
Moses: Leadership Lessons from the Lawgiver
Circa 12th century B.C., Moses launched a revolt against the Egyptian Pharaoh, leading his people out of Egypt.
6 Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from Moses
- Discover your purpose and find the courage to see it through: More than anything else, it was God’s purpose for Moses’ life that made him a great leader. And when he found the courage to face the Pharaoh and lead his people out of Egypt, the historians began to write his name in the books.
- Deal with the Issues: Moses had many shortcomings and because he was slow to deal with them he created problems for himself and his people that he might have easily averted. He also missed out on some great opportunities (e.g. seeing the Promised Land) because of his impatience.
- When you fail, learn from your mistakes and move on: One of the things that stands out from a study of many successful leaders, including Moses, is how many times they screwed up. In some cases, the critical blunders and serious errors in judgment that famous leaders have made is simply unbelievable . Yet, because they were intent to recover, they almost always did. Think of how President Clinton actually gained seats in Congress after the Lewinsky affair or think of the fiasco that President Kennedy created with the Bay of Pigs invasion. Look into the past of any of the legends of leadership and you will almost always find more than a handful of so-called “career killers”—things that we might think would destroy their ability to lead. It is often said that the skeletons in our closet, along with the increasingly intense and intrusive scrutiny of the media, keeps good people from running for office, but perhaps it is more of a lack of courage and resilience.
- Accept people as they are, but work to bring out the best in them: Moses had to deal with a great many bitter, unhappy people; but rather than focusing on the complaints, Moses focused on developing and delegating to the talented few with the right attitude to help him lead the nation.
- Find the courage to confront your enemies: When God told Moses that he had to confront the Pharaoh, Moses balked. He was afraid and he quickly started coming up with excuses. And Moses had good reason to be afraid too. The renowned early 19th English preacher and Biblical scholar, Arthur Walkington Pink, writes: “His temper toward their race was well known, his heartless cruelty had been frequently displayed; it was, therefore, no small trial of their faith and courage to beard the lion in his den. The character of the message they were to deliver to him was not calculated to pacify.” Despite the apparent absurdity of God’s request, Moses and Aaron followed through and as a result of their courage a new nation was born.
- Never attempt to do it alone; build a reliable team: Not only did Moses have Aaron to help him lead and share in the responsibilities, but Moses also learned—thanks to his father-in-law, Jethro—of the importance of sharing and delegating the work to a team.
Cyrus the Great: Leadership Lessons from the King of Persia
Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 B.C.) was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. He was a great conqueror, but is most often remembered for uniting different tribes (the Medes and the Persians), his legacy in human rights, and for his religious tolerance, magnanimity and generosity toward those he conquered.
Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from Cyrus the Great
- Respect the Customs and Cultures of Others: In stark contrast to the dogmatic, fundamentalist leaders often found in the region today, Cyrus the Great was renowned not just for his tolerance of other peoples and their beliefs, but for his respect and magnanimity toward others, including the people of the Jewish faith, who referred to Cyrus as “the anointed of the Lord.”
Siddhartha Gautama: Leadership Lessons from Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama “Buddha”(563-483 B.C.)was the founder of Buddhism.
8 Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from the Buddh
- Get your thinking right first: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”
- Be willing to make big sacrifices: The Buddha was a wealthy prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who gave up everything to seek wisdom and understanding.
- Take action: “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”
- Persevere: Striving toward “impossible” goals (e.g. enlightenment) takes time and persistence.
- Live the example you want your people to emulate:
- Live true to your principles: The Buddha taught ten principles that leaders should live by: integrity, selflessness, self-restraint, patience, tranquility, virtue, non-violence, affability, balance, and resolve.
- Leaders develop leaders: The Buddha worked to teach his followers the lessons and principles they needed to learn and flourish.
Hannibal: Leadership Lessons from the Military Genius of Carthage
- Aim for Ambitious Goals and Resolve to Bring Them About: Even today, Hannibal is considered one of the greatest military minds of history. But he is most often remembered for the single achievement of bringing an army across the Alps to invade Italy. The Romans considered such an endeavor to be impossible and were, thus, unprepared when it happened. In fact, the Romans were not the only ones to think that an invasion through the Alps was impossible. When Hannibal’s own generals said that it could not be done, Hannibal responded: “I will find a way, or make one.”
Spartacus: Leadership Lessons from the Slave Gladiator
Spartacus (109-71 B.C.) started out as a militia leader who later fought in the Roman army, Spartacus was imprisoned and sold into slavery where he became a gladiator. Spartacus and a group of other slaves soon escaped and eventually led a major revolt against Rome in the Third Servile War.
Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from Spartacus
- Spend Time and Effort Earning Respect: When Spartacus realized that Rome was choosing enemies primarily out of greed and pride and its hunger for perpetual war, he deserted. Unfortunately, this was against the laws of Rome and because Spartacus was so highly respected amongst the men, the Roman leaders felt compelled to hunt him down and make an example of him, lest other soldiers might follow his lead. This same respect, however, would later serve him during the uprising, helping him to keep the men together, helping him to build up an army, and helping his story to gain currency with the citizens of Rome. If Spartacus had not gained the respect of so many, his story would not have been possible, nor would it have traveled so far.
- Know the Weaknesses of Your Opponents: When Spartacus served with the Roman legions he was unimpressed. The pay and employment security was good, but he quickly realized and reflected on the many weaknesses of the army and its leadership. In time, his understanding of their weaknesses, including their rigid rules of engagement and their voracious appetite for war, would be a critical weapon that he would use against them.
- Use Strategy to Build Strength: Facing the Roman legions who were sent out to contain the uprising, Spartacus and his original army of former slaves (less than 2,000 men) were outnumbered by more than twenty to one. But by using guerilla tactics and carefully planned strategies, Spartacus was able to use small groups of men, often as few as 100, to destroy as many as 3,000 Romans in a single skirmish. Spartacus understood that a smart strategy can trump superior size.
- Learn to Build an Army: When Spartacus and the other slaves first escaped and set up camp outside the walls of Rome, their numbers totaled 70. In less than two years, Spartacus grew the small uprising into a full-fledged fighting force, a revolutionary army of over 100,000 soldiers. With this, the story of a small slave uprising transformed into a national movement, threatening the security of Rome.
Julius Caesar: Leadership Lessons from the "Dictator for Life"
Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.)is most often remembered for his role in transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
4 Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from Julius Caesar
- Demonstrate Results Repeatedly: Winning once is cool. Winning frequently attracts willing followers. This is a lesson for President Obama. He achieved a well-deserved victory in 2008. Like all leaders, however, he needs to continue to produce results to maintain his leadership.
- Learn from Experience: Julius Caesar had years of experience fighting with the legionnaires. He didn’t learn to be a great military leader from a philosopher or a book, but from hard experience. And he didn’t merely live the experience without learning the lessons and taking stock. Many people go through long years of powerful experiences and walk away none the wiser. Take time to reflect, journal and learn from your experience. In the words of Shakespeare’s Caesar, “Experience is the teacher of all things.”
- Expect the Best and Respond in Kind: Julius Caesar had the highest expectations of himself and his people. And he treated his people with respect and great generosity. He wanted their all and when they met his expectations he rewarded them beyond measure.
- Be Decisive: It is important to make decisions and stick with them. Julius Caesar did this well. However, this is also an area where he failed. He made many bad decisions because his focus was too narrow (on his own individual interests—back to the out-of-control ambition) and he failed to understand the reality of the big picture.
4 Leadership Lessons from Julius Caesar’s Mistakes and Failures
- Leadership, Not Control: Rather than leading people, he sought to control them and he was assassinated as a result. When he led the army as a hero, he did well. When he tried to rule the Senate with an iron fist he paid the ultimate price of failure: death.
- Control Your Ambition: Julius Caesar refused to settle for second best. His ambition was a strength and a weaknesses. We admire his strength and will to rise to the top, but his methods crossed the line and for that he paid the ultimate price. Ambition can be good, unbridled ambition is a grenade without the pin.
- Listen to the People: Troubling signs were all around him, yet Caesar lacked the humility to listen and learn from those around him—even those, like his own wife (who, in Shakespeare’s telling, dreamed that Caesar’s statue gushed with blood “like a fountain with an hundred spouts…[while] many lusty Romans came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.” Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene II).
- Share Power: Concerned only with his own selfish ambition, Julius Caesar cared nothing for the Roman Republic. Had he been a truly great leader, he would of understood the need to share power and he would of worked to build a legacy not just for himself, but for Rome.
Jesus Christ: Lessons in Influence from the Prince of Peace
Revolutionary Leadership Lessons from Jesus
- Develop a Servant’s Heart (Servant Leadership): Beyond His message of love and hope, Jesus focused on serving others. The indelible metaphor is when Jesus washed the apostles feet. Robert Greenleaf wrote an excellent book on this topic: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
- Focus on Being a Leader of Leaders (Transformational Leadership), Rather than a Leader of Followers (Authoritarian Leadership): The greatest leaders look beyond themselves. They have the long-term needs and interests of their followers at heart and, therefore, rather than focusing on dominating and controlling their followers, they focus on transforming their followers into leaders themselves. This was the central focus of Jesus, who invested considerable time pouring into His apostles and preparing them to lead.
- Adopt a Transcendent Vision: One of the greatest lessons from Christ’s leadership is the importance of a compelling, transcendent, and visionary purpose. Jesus did not think small or short-term. Too many leaders today focus on superficial, materialistic goals and quarterly targets and, not surprisingly, these men and women are quickly forgotten. The great leaders—even when they are focused on short-term goals or immediate crises—always maintain a profound and inspiring vision of the distant future, a vision that reaches beyond their own individual concerns and selfish interests “to the broader concerns of all humanity.” (MLK)
Constantine: Lessons in Influence from Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great (280-337 A.D.)was a Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and led a movement for religious tolerance.
Leadership Lessons from Constantine the Great
- Seek Truth and Tolerance: Most people today mistakenly believe that “tolerance” means keeping quiet about any of our spiritual or religious beliefs. And though it would be far better if we could all share openly and respectfully (the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School has written an excellent book on this topic: Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy), perhaps the most important thing is that leaders continue to be true to themselves and guided by the sacred wisdom and time-tested principles of their faith. In this respect, Constantine sets a powerful example. He followed his faith and demonstrated tolerance for the faith of others. In fact, Constantine went as far as signing the Edict of Milan, a proclamation that declared religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire.
Charlemagne: Leadership Lessons from Charles the Great
Charlemagne (742-814) conquered and consolidated much of Western and Central Europe. Today, he is often remembered as “The Father of Europe.”
Leadership Lessons from Charlemagne
- Seek Progress Through Unity: Charlemagne was born during the Dark Ages, a few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Europe was in a state of chaos with scores of barbarian tribes battling one another, raping and pillaging peaceful peoples, and striving for supremacy. Charlemagne had a bigger vision. His purpose was not to dominate other kingdoms merely for his own selfish interests, but to also bring people together for progress. Today, the intellectual and cultural revival that happened as a result of his leadership is known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
- Make Learning a Cornerstone: Charlemagne placed great emphasis on learning and education. He not only attracted leading scholars to his court, but he focused on the creation of schools and educational standards throughout the empire. Charlemagne even took time to study himself and was known for being open to learning from others. 1
- Partner with Other Powerful People: No doubt, as a devout believer, Charlemagne had spiritual motivations for respecting the authority of the church. He was also a pragmatic leader, however, and did not hesitate to work together with the clergy, and build alliances with the papacy to further strengthen his own authority in the eyes of the many believers in his kingdom. In 800 A.D., Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III as the Roman Emperor.
In Charlemagne’s case, the Pope appeared to be even more reliant on him, then vice versa. Nevertheless, identifying ways to associate with other powerful people is a familiar strategy of ambitious leaders. In the beginning of his career, Arnold Schwarzenegger would often seek to associate himself with other powerful people as a way increasing his own “star power.” Schwarzenegger would even try to stand near other more illustrious celebrities when the press was around so that he would be seen in pictures with other stars. We’ve all seen those people with pictures of themselves with celebrities and politicians all around their office. It’s shameless self-promotion, but it works because (assuming its legitimate) it does add a hint of credibility.
- Aggressively Pursue Goals: Courage and aggressiveness will always play an important role in effective leadership and Charlemagne was no exception. In his rise to the top, Charlemagne marched without hesitation to build alliances where he could and declare war when he thought he must. Though the way we think about courage and aggression in a civil society may be significantly more refined, leaders’ ability to hustle is still a critical success factor.
Leadership Lessons from Charlemagne’s Mistakes and Failures
- Project Strength and Magnanimity: Charlemagne was often stern and occasionally cruel toward his enemies. In one instance, after years of attempting to subdue and convert his enemy, Charlemagne had an army of Saxon prisoners (4,500 men) beheaded in a single day. Charlemagne projected strength and instilled fear in his enemies, but it was a double-edged sword. Rather than silencing the Saxons, the Massacre of Verden scraped the scabs of age-old wounds, reviving a river of bloody warfare.
- Sullivan, Richard E. (2011). “Charlemagne.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/106546/Charlemagne