Learning What Great Leaders Think

By | September 18, 2021

[September 18, 2021]  One sure-fire way of improving your leadership skills is learning about what great leaders think.    How and why they think specific ways is crucial to helping replicate their successes.  Unfortunately, this is a challenging task that requires a serious investment in time and study, but it also requires a lot of good luck.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason, so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford, American industrialist

There are a limited number of ways to finding out what leaders think.  For example, we could just ask them; but that would require more time than they are willing to give, even if you could speak to any of them.  Many are dead long ago, and such an option simply will not do in nearly every case, even if they were alive.  That means we are limited to other means.

We could read and study what they’ve written or what others have written about them.  Assuming we can find such material, it is subject to considerable bias, distortion, and misinterpretations … and the further back in time, the greater this problem.  Sadly, we don’t know how the bias has tainted the information for a particular leader of interest.

A method I use often – and there are other techniques not to be disregarded – is reading about what happened during a noteworthy event or series of events in which a given leader played a significant role.  Currently, I’m reading about The Battle of Waterloo, A.D. 1815.  It is of value to understand the historical circumstances of that battle to help put into context the thinking – rather, what we may think is the thinking – behind Napoléon Bonaparte’s (and another leader’s) decisions.

“Leaders think and talk about the solutions.  Followers think and talk about the problems.” – Brian Tracy

It is more than understanding their thoughts and the processes they used to get to a certain point in their decision-making.  Bonaparte adopted an early form of modern military staff work that took much of the recurring and mundane work off the commander, allowing him more time for deeper thinking.  And the staff assisted in gathering and analyzing incoming data. Today, we call this the Napoleonic military staff system for a good reason, and it has been adopted in some form by all modern armies.

It’s also good to get a different perspective on the thinking of leaders through other means.  Most of what I read about The Battle of Waterloo is from the perspective of the British.  Our history books are full of the “English” version and the “winners” version of events that took place there.  The French account and those of Bonaparte and his biographers have a different idea.

Regular study of Bonaparte has helped me to understand him a little better.  I only wish that I had taken the time to study him closer when I was a junior leader.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

13 thoughts on “Learning What Great Leaders Think

  1. Joe Omerrod

    This is what I try to get across to my High School kids. Well, they are not all “kids” per se but you get the picture…they are immature and need guidance to be all they can be. I want them to be better thinkers, so I encourage them to read great ideas thru books. Gen. Satterfield is telling us the same thing and helping us – slowly but it still works – get ahead of the competition.

  2. Max Foster

    Another hit for Gen. Satterfield with this blog post today. I advise we expand upon the idea somewhat and provide a few details so that less experienced leaders can fully understand. One comment I’ll make is to study great men (yes I wrote “men”) – that’s not a hit on women but a fact. If you want real leadership – authentic leadership some call it – then study great men. Autobiographies are best, regular biographies second best. The former gives us a rare glimpse into their thinking (yeah, I know they exaggerate but usually to what they should have done to make things even better). Thanks Gen. Satterfield for your continued service to our nation.

    1. Frank Graham

      Wow, you got that one right Max. Thanks again. I do like this website by Gen. Satterfield. I hope he keeps up the writing and education.

  3. Rusty D

    Excellent article, Gen. Satterfield, thanks for making the argument that I also push on my friends and family.

  4. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    “A method I use often – and there are other techniques not to be disregarded – is reading about what happened during a noteworthy event or series of events in which a given leader played a significant role.” Works for me. 👍

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      Otto, me as well. Reading biographies and info on great battles is a proven way to success. You begin to understand the way they think, can see the value of this process of thinking, and slowly begin to adopt it. That is the way an ordinary person can become a great leader. But, it takes very hard work and dedication. Else, you are just a wussy. ha ha ha ha ha

  5. Rev. Michael Cain

    Teddy Roosevelt, great man. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Interesting… not just a leader philosophy but a pragmatic way of life.

    1. Rowen Tabernackle

      Yes, thank you Rev Cain, your comments are always good for me. I hope one day to be a much better leader of men (or anybody). I think the ultimate test of leadership is a women who leads men. If we can do it, then we can do anything. Whining is not the way to leadership, and that is a typical woman’s method. Just look at Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris as two classic examples.


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