[July 24, 2020] As we look across the landscape of successful senior leaders, there are common threads that are worth investigating. Whether such leaders were developed long ago or today and regardless of where they originate, their journeys are not that different. This two-part mini-series explores those similarities of strategic leaders, how they think, and what they see.
Any study of great leaders is no small task. Reducing the concepts of complex, successful leadership is fraught with potential bias and error. Of course, I take responsibility for any mistakes made. However, having known many senior military and political leaders while they were doing their jobs has allowed me to observe them real-time, in their environment. At the time, they were making history. I was fortunate to be there.
Lessons from these great men and women are many; I will point to three impactful facets of their leadership that stand out for me. What separates these from all the others is their consistency and commonality. Like the often told meta-story, the preparation of a strategic leader follows a familiar path. I also use my study of recent historical figures to augment and reinforce my own observations.
Each of these strategic leaders had a lifetime of study and diverse leader experiences, were able to anticipate key future events, and recognized and developed their subordinates. We are all fortunate that many historians saw and wrote in detail about famous leaders and had their works scrutinized and challenged to ensure its accuracy.
I am not the first to see this pattern. For example, British PM Churchill, U.S. General Eisenhower, and President Roosevelt, historians wrote that these men grew as a result of what they saw, how they read and studied and thought, and when they lived.
First, while there is no model for developing strategic wisdom, we do know that through combining demanding experiences with a lifetime of intensive self-study. In his book The Last Lion, William Manchester tells the story of Churchill’s journey from a lonely childhood to the leader of Great Britain. He paints a detailed and compelling full picture for the reader of one of history’s greatest statesmen. Churchill provides a mold of developing a strategic thinker based upon his life first as a junior military Infantry officer.
A critical insight from Churchill’s career is that strategic leaders are continually preparing and reassessing. Those leaders undoubtedly have missteps along the way. Manchester’s description of Churchill’s conviction and preparation in his times of struggle helps us understand how he rallied the British public in their time of crisis. Churchill has a lifetime of experiences to fall back on, and it was his relentless pursuit of self-preparation that equipped him for his service as Prime Minister when his country needed him most.1
Tomorrow, I will discuss the second and third similarity of the most significant strategic leaders of our time.