Leadership: What the Past Can Teach Us Today

Leadership: What the Past Can Teach Us Today

When you look around the corporate landscape today, you see plenty of highly paid executives. These men and women are obviously all smart, hard working and powerful. But do they have the key leadership attributes of the greatest men and women in history?

Broadly educated. The greatest men and women in history were often self-educated. But they were also continuously self-educated. Those who were formally educated generally were not specialists in one area of field but were broadly and liberally educated in a number of areas from languages to sciences to history and literature. Today, more often than not, the women and men who lead the largest corporations in the world are engineers, accountants and MBAs as opposed to liberally educated people.

Singular focus. The greatest women and men in history often were singular in their focus whether it was political success, military victory, building a business empire or leading a great cause. These great people fought the odds and popular opinion over and over again to achieve success in their area of focus. Today’s executives often jump from venture to venture and corporation to corporation. They put a quick fix in place and move on to the next high paying challenge. While there are exceptions, this model had become increasingly common.

Selfless. Historically, some of the greatest women and men have put their cause or their mission far ahead of their personal wealth and stature. They were by definition “selfless” – they did whatever it took to achieve their goal or mission. In many cases, they did in the long run become rich and famous. But this was often an end result and not a goal in and of itself. Today, it is not uncommon for corporate and other executive leaders to pursue the goal of fame and fortune for those ends alone rather than passion for a cause, vision or mission.

Self-denying. Some of the greatest people in history have denied themselves food, sleep, family, friends, hobbies, home comforts and more to achieve their goals. While there have been exceptions, many of the greats of all time put these comforts low on their list of priorities compared to what was needed to accomplish their life goals and missions. How many executives today give up anything – except maybe sleep. Generally speaking, they seem to want – no demand – that they have it all. And have it all now. How very different from the majority of the great leaders of the past.

Lead from the front. Whether in politics, military, social causes or business, the greats of the past lead by example. They lead from the front. This exposed them to the greatest danger, the greatest criticism and the greatest exposure to the negative effects of pursuing their goals or causes. Today, at the height of political correctness, executives and other leaders do not take a step without the counsel of the public relations, security, legal, shareholder affairs and finance teams. Even then, most are timid to make statements much less to take bold actions visible to their employees and their customers.

People first. Leaders of the past went through subordinates as often if not more so than the leaders of today. What differed was that loyalty was often rewarded. Good and great leaders always brought in the best to serve under them in all capacities and levels. They wanted only the best – people stronger, smarter, and more capable than themselves to further their causes, armies, companies and other ventures. This multiplied their personal effectiveness. When there people failed or otherwise fell by the wayside, the leaders found other roles and places for their fallen loyalists. Today, executives fear being outshined by their subordinates. Often, the only reward for loyal service is to be dismissed sooner rather than later. The most important asset is viewed as a disposable and interchangeable commodity by today’s leaders.

Over the course of history, great women and men have accomplished amazing things. Their achievements have resulting from: seeking a broad and continuing education (learning), singular focus, being selfless, denying themselves to achieve their goals and missions, leading boldly from the front and selecting the best people and putting them first. While corporations of today are generating great wealth under the leadership of executives, they could perform exponentially better in the short and long term under leaders who followed and applied the same principals as the greatest men and women over the centuries.

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