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5 Management Lessons From History's Greatest Leaders

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Written by Andy Trainer– Wed 14 Nov 2012

Throughout history there are certain figures who stand out as naturally great leaders. It is always useful for managers to focus on the qualities that made these people great and try to emulate them.

You can learn how to develop these qualities and much more on our leadership and management courses.

We recently gave some tips for managing a start-up but in this post we will focus on the more general skills that can apply to anyone in a leadership position, whether your business is just getting off the ground or you're an established manager with years of experience. And we'll be having some fun with it too... hopefully.

John F. Kennedy - Aspire to Greatness

JFK was perhaps the most youthful, vivacious and daring president there has ever been (and we're not just talking about his extra-marital exploits here).  While this sometimes got him into trouble (*nearly caused the apocalypse) he will be remembered as the man who dreamed of putting a man on the moon, reversing the centuries-old persecution of African-Americans and bedding Marilyn Monroe!

Dare to dream like JFK. Aim for the stars and still land on the moon, aim for Mila Kunis and still land on...actually, I think we'll leave that analogy there. Aspiring towards greatness instills a confidence in your employees in both you, and themselves. Be like JFK. Be remembered. Be great.

Abraham Lincoln - Control Your Emotions

Lincoln was the don. Freed the slaves? Yup. Won a civil war? Of course. Kept America from disintegrating as a country? All in a day's work. Oh and apparently he killed a few vampires too!

You'd think all this being a superhero lark might cause Abe to get short with people; flash his temper at his sub-ordinates. Not quite.

Ol' Abe did indeed get angry but he had a great little technique to stop it from ruining his professional life, and that was to write a letter to anyone that had wound him up, and then never send it. He'd keep these letters filed away and then when he felt comfortable enough,(and if the person was aware they'd got on his nerves) he'd actually write a letter to that person expressing how he in fact held no grudge toward them.

Talk about being the bigger man! You don't necessarily have to do a Lincoln and write a letter, but it is useful to find a way to release your emotions without screaming at employees. Whether that's playing squash or relaxing with a glass of wine, finding an outlet for your pent-up anger and disappointment will make your relationships at work much nicer. Unless you work with vampires, in which case go ahead - be as angry as you like!

Nelson Mandela - Be a Fighter


Now you'd think that being locked up for quarter of a century would turn you into a bitter and twisted ball of rage. Not for Mr.Mandela. How did he respond to being incarcerated? He became President and sought to continue changing the system that had been so cruel to him. He didn't see himself as a victim, but as a fighter.

As a leader you will have to fight for your beliefs - and no I don't mean landing a right hook on the MD's chin each time he shoots down your great idea.

Being able to stand your ground but adapt when necessary is a vital trait of great leaders. Knowing when to plough headfirst into battle and when to stand back and let things take their course is important too.


Martin Luther King JR - Communicate Well

"I have a dream that every manager in this great country will be able to get their point across clearly and effectively". MLK was one of history's greatest orators: he knew how to communicate his grandiose ideas to the general public in a way that would make them stand up and take notice.

Take a note of MLK's charismatic speech but also remember that each person is different. Giving instructions in one way may work for one person and not for another. Being able to adapt the way in which you explain your ideas is a necessary tool for all managers. Clarify anything anyone doesn't understand early on and you'll avoid any major misunderstandings later down the line.



Winston Churchill - Make Tough Decisions

"Are you sure that war is the only option sir?" "Oh yes!"

Had the famous nodding-dog's namesake decided in 1940 that it wasn't a good idea to open fire on French warships we'd all be eating sauerkraut together with various other borderline-xenophobic clichés. Instead he decided that enough was enough, that either we sank them or they'd be taken into Nazi hands. He made a choice that he knew could lead to the deaths of over 1000 French sailors but that he felt had to be made, to prevent the deaths of potentially millions of innocent people. The rest is history.

Be bold. Make those hardest of choices and be secure in your decisions. A truly great leader will make a life-changing decision and not spend days worrying about whether it was the right choice. Do the same. Pick a path and stick to it. Fight on the beaches. Fight on the landing grounds. Fight in the fields and in the streets. Fight in the hills. Never surrender.

Corey Hart - What Churchill would have been like in the 80s...probably.




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