[October 29, 2016] On occasion I present a leader who is well known through their actions or their writings. My intent is to get into the mind of that person so that those of us who study leadership can better understand the thinking of those who were successful, and even exceptional, in carrying out their leadership duties. Today, I’ll start a two-part series on T.E. Lawrence, more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia.
This is not a biography but given my space limitations, it would be best if I highlighted some of Lawrence’s ideas and philosophy. A studious leader can then delve deeper and more broadly if they have the interests to gain better insight into T.E. Lawrence as a military leader and expert on understanding a culture so different from his own.
T.E. Lawrence was a British military officer who took part and became famous for his role in the Great Arab Revolt of 1916. He provides us with a view Westerners rarely see. Lawrence joined Amir Faisal al Husayn’s revolt against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire as a political liaison officer, leading a guerilla campaign that harassed the Turks behind their lines.1 My focus will be his views about the Bedu (alternate name Bedouin) that is based on his summarized approach to Arab warfare published in his Twenty Seven Articles and in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
At its core, his publications are about how to fight with Arab troops and, while written nearly 100 years ago and a bit outdated, they’re still helpful for Western military leaders who work with Arab militaries. Lawrence put his 27 articles of working with Arabs in a commandment form for greater clarity and to save words.
One article that I find most interesting is #12. Here it is in its entirety:
Cling tight to your sense of humour. You will need it every day. A dry irony is the most useful type, and repartee of a personal and not too broad character will double your influence with the chiefs. Reproof, if wrapped up in some smiling form, will carry further and last longer than the most violent speech. The power of mimicry or parody is valuable, but use it sparingly, for wit is more dignified than humour. Do not cause a laugh at a Sharif except among Sharifs.
Having a sense of humor is a habit that no real leader can be without. It allows one to be more approachable and more effective and when working with others in different cultures, it requires focus so as not to insult unintentionally. In article #12 Lawrence is telling us about basic human psychology. Everyone reacts better when we exercise respect for others. The Arabic cultures are no exception.
Another article which we should all take note is #21:
Religious discussions will be frequent. Say what you like about your own side, and avoid criticism of theirs, unless you know that the point is external, when you may score heavily by proving it so. With the Bedu, Islam is so all-pervading an element that there is little religiosity, little fervour, and no regard for externals. Do not think from their conduct that they are careless. Their conviction of the truth of their faith, and its share in every act and thought and principle of their daily life is so intimate and intense as to be unconscious, unless roused by opposition. Their religion is as much a part of nature to them as is sleep or food.
What else is there to say except that most Westerners are ignorant of such an obvious truth.
In Part 2 of this two-part series on T.E. Lawrence, I’ll discuss more about his philosophy and note that while it is generally good advice for any culture there are particularities about the Arabic cultures that make his advice that much more astute and useful.
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