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The Leaders Our Companies Need: Lessons We Can Learn from Historical Luminaries

Leaders Our Companies Need

IF YOU ENTER a bookstore and peruse the shelves for books on famous leaders in history, you’ll likely find a recurring cast of characters staring at you. Winston Churchill. Napoleon Bonaparte. Abraham Lincoln. Mao Zedong.

Keep browsing and you’ll encounter another variant of this literature featuring prominent men (and sometimes women) in the business or corporate world: Bill Gates. Elon Musk. Warren Buffett. Carlos Slim. Jeff Bezos. With varying degrees of nuance, these people are treated as heroes, role models, and inspirations. They’re portrayed as uniquely powerful individuals — able to overcome, through sheer force of will or ruthless intelligence, the obstacles they faced.

The message from this literary cottage industry is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s hard to escape this view of leaders and leadership.

But what qualities do our celebrated leaders of industry embody that make them successful? Is it their ability to increase the company’s value? Effectively lead through a major transition? Inspire others through a shared passion? And, importantly, what qualities can others emulate to themselves become more effective leaders?

Learning how to be good leaders doesn’t involve formulas or abstractions. It can, however, be edified through examining tangible illustrations of leaders and leadership from history. How leaders operated within, or pushed against, the constraints of their time illustrate characteristics of responsibility, vision, sacrifice, and more. Actions of standout leaders through history who have had to make decisions in the direst circumstances, impose a radical new vision, or stand up to injustice or oppression, continue to echo as archetypes of leadership.

Let’s examine the qualities of some prominent leaders from the past to reveal the sort of leaders and leadership that are needed to tackle the problems facing us today.

Responsibility to the People: FDR and the Great Depression

History shows us that truly important leaders emerge in times of crisis. When there is peace and economic prosperity, leaders can do well, but their main role is one of management — making sure things stay stable. When the Great Depression hit, President Herbert Hoover, while not personally responsible for the Wall Street crash, attempted to maintain a management role but failed to address or even take into full account the suffering of the American people. Hoover came off as callous and detached. He was widely admired and popular when he entered the White House in 1929, but his loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 was the biggest landslide in American electoral history.

A striking feature of Roosevelt’s political success was that he became an admired champion of the poorest Americans. Roosevelt’s New Deal — the policies that aimed to bring an end to the Depression through large public investment and by putting Americans to work — didn’t necessarily achieve its goals in purely “economic” terms (the US economy remained “depressed” throughout the 1930s), but it accomplished something more important: it gave people hope, restored their morale and self-respect, and showed them a kind of leadership that put the public interest first. Roosevelt’s energy and his manner of speaking had a certain charisma that Hoover’s lacked. He gave the impression that he intended to match his words with actions. But he also conveyed the sense that he felt a personal responsibility, as president and leader, for how people were faring.

Enacting a Purposeful Vision: Margaret Thatcher’s Political Ideology

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s influence stretches further, and goes deeper, than just Britain. In fact, we live in a world she helped make and that came straight out of her vision. Many consider her forceful acts to privatize public services, dismantle the remnants of socialism, and favor the wealthy as “job creators” as ending an era of stagnation, unproductive industries, and social decay. Dubbed “the Iron Lady,” she modernized Britain’s economy by putting almost all state assets up for sale, defeating trade unions, championing entrepreneurship and the financial sector, and creating the economic and social landscape Britain still has today.

The Thatcherite outlook remains dominant, in Britain and elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally loved or that it will last. The deadly, debilitating COVID pandemic, featuring a virus that ignored national borders and private interests and killed millions of people, exposed the limitations of the Thatcherite worldview, with its emphasis on individualism and jingoism — both of which took a bad situation and made it worse. And as we face a global climate crisis, the reckoning with Thatcher’s legacy will grow. Even if many of our leaders continue to repeat Thatcherite pieties, only drastic changes in how we collectively live, govern, and organize our economy will offer any hope for solutions.

Self-Sacrifice For a Cause: MLK’s Stand Against Racial Injustice

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., an eloquent Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in theology, unwittingly became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in the late 1950s and 1960s until he was assassinated at age 39. His passionate orations reminded Americans of their creed that “all men were created equal” and ignited massive demonstrations in the form of “freedom rides” in southern states, voter registration drives, sit-ins, and marches.

King showcased morally compelling, truth-telling leadership and drew attention throughout the nation and around the world to the persistence of segregation and racism. In this regard, he and his followers were wildly successful. Yet, in the 50-plus years since King’s death, the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has grown exponentially, and African Americans remain among the poorest — and by far the most incarcerated — of the population.

We are all living through history, and while we’re products of the past, we’re also the makers of the future. Whether through responsibility, vision, or sacrifice, or other influential traits, we must hone the leadership qualities that will shape the businesses — and the society — we need today and into the future.

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Leading Forum
Moshik Temkin is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership and History at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, Journal of Democracy, New Republic, and the Los Angeles Times.

For the past decade, Moshik Temkin has challenged his students at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and around the world to grapple with the nature of leadership as part of his wildly popular course “Leaders and Leadership in History.” Now, in Warriors, Rebels, and Saints, Temkin refashions the classroom for a wider audience. Learn more at moshiktemkin.com.

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