Great and effective leaders in history

25 November 2022

Which historical leader do you admire?  If you have answered this question, now think about the answer to the question, what is it about her/him that you admire?  

When we think of great historical leaders, we tend to think of people who have made a difference in the world or have had an impact on people’s lives.  We may think of Churchill and his role in the second world war, Martin Luther King, and his impact on the Civil Rights movement, or maybe Ghandi and his fight for Indian independence.  These leaders, and many others like them, have undoubtedly had a major impact on world affairs. But when we come to explain why we admire them we tend to focus on the outcome of their actions, or what they did, rather than how they did it.  In other words, what made Churchill, Ghandi, and King effective as leaders?

Before that, we need to understand what the role of the leader is.  

A leader cannot exist without a group of people or an organisation to lead.  The leader is part of the group as well as leading it, and leadership emerges through the method and practice of leading.  

How effective the group or organisation is at achieving its intended goals is ultimately down to the degree the members of the group have a common understanding of the reason or purpose of their collaborative efforts. For example, if individuals are working at cross-purposes with each other then they will spend time and energy competing for their point of view to be preeminent, create duplicate, and, often, competing systems, create factions, and/or withhold effort.  All of this will impact the effectiveness of the group and, of course, the effectiveness of the leader.

Therefore, the first and main role of the leader is to define and distil the reason why the group exists and the vision or goal for the future. The leader must be able to create a compelling narrative, or story, that each individual member of the group can understand, coalesce around, believe in, and disseminate.  We create a common reality where we find common ground within a common narrative. We create the basis for an organisation when we discover a common intent within a common narrative.

A leader’s ability to give voice to their group’s narrative is precisely and appropriately something we associate with their effectiveness. Consistently effective leaders articulate and represent who we aspire to be as a group in a way that we can make sense of things; in a way that we can identify if/where we can make a valuable contribution to the realisation of that aspiration, and if we want to participate. 

So, back to our historical leaders. When Martin Luther King made his famous speech in Washington, he didn’t list the changes he wanted to see or give a list of instructions to the crowd that had gathered to see him, rather he created a strong and compelling story of the history of the civil rights movement in America that culminated in setting a clear goal for a better America by the simple yet powerful and aspirational words “I have a dream’. 

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