Glenn Uminowicz - August 2008
History’s Leadership Secrets
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
Attila might today be characterized as an entrepreneur, diplomat, social reformer, statesman, civilizer, brilliant field marshal and host of some terrific parties.
From Wess Roberts, Leadership Secrets of Attila The Hun (1985)
In 1985, psychologist Wess Roberts did not choose Attila, King of the Huns as a metaphoric character because of any of the above labels. His true purpose was to offer Attila’s life story as an opportunity for “relating leadership fundamentals to a new generation.”
As in most presidential election years, Americans now focus their attention on questions of leadership. Who do you want to pick up the red telephone in the White House at 3 a.m.? As is often the case, parallels are drawn with figures from American history assumed to possess strong leadership skills. For at least seventy years, business consultants have drawn lessons on leadership based on figures from the past. As a service to voters in this election year, some leadership essentials follow based on the lives of John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, and, of course, Attila the Hun.
Advertising executive Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1925) remains a classic example of drawing lessons from history. Barton portrayed Jesus Christ as the world’s greatest business executive, who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” He possessed “personal magnetism” combined with an overwhelming faith in the importance of the work at hand. To accomplish that work, Jesus used his “powerful gift of picking men and recognizing hidden capabilities in them.” He knew that Peter was the rock upon which to build his church.
In illustrating leadership principles, Barton did not restrict himself to the life of Christ. He related the story, for example, of a man carrying a message from Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton during the Civil War. Within a few minutes, the messenger returned filled with indignation. The president asked, “Did you give the message to Stanton? What did he do?” The outraged subordinate exclaimed that the secretary tore up the message and “what’s more, sir, he said you are a fool!” With a dry laugh, the president concluded, “Well, I reckon it must be true then, because Stanton is generally right.”
In Lincoln on Leadership (1992), Donald T. Phillips marveled at Lincoln’s ability to handle people. At the beginning of his administration, Stanton doubted that the new president was up to the job. He clashed with Lincoln over tactics and policy, but the president recognized that Stanton was the best man for the War Department. The secretary revamped his department into an efficient organization and eventually supported Lincoln’s desire for action and victory through the appointment of generals like Ulysses Grant. Stanton grew to respect Lincoln and the president came to admire and understand Stanton. He realized that under a gruff exterior existed a capable administrator. As a result, he let the secretary run the War Department as he saw fit. After all, Stanton was generally right.
Phillips counted among Lincoln’s leadership skills the ability to build alliances within an organization, even with potential adversaries. Lincoln delegated effectively to capable administrators and generals, providing broad direction while allowing them to take ownership of their roles. He recognized accomplishments and accepted responsibility for failures himself. He focused attention on the larger goal – the vision of keeping the Union intact and later the abolition of slavery. In short, Lincoln was a “transforming leader,” who aimed for a “new level of awareness and understanding among all members of an organization.”
Phillips concluded that Lincoln stands as the “greatest leader this nation has ever known.” He noted the circumstances that the new president inherited from his predecessor. By the end of his term, James Buchanan gave up hope that the nation could be held together. Congress took no action in the face of the secession crisis. Lincoln needed to retain abolitionist support while ensuring that slave-holding border states like Maryland remained in the Union. He had to organize an effective national government and prepare for war. Moreover, many regarded the new president as an ill-equipped country lawyer with no military experience who had served but one term in congress. How could someone so lacking in experience function as commander-in-chief?
In 2008, Lincoln’s record could serve as a rebuttal for a presidential candidate accused of lacking experience. The number of Lincoln references in the political campaign is dwarfed, however, by mentions of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
In John F. Kennedy on Leadership (2005), John A. Barnes noted that, like Bruce Barton, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was an early and avid believer in the then-new art of public relations. Beginning in the 1920s, he courted reporters and hired press agents to keep himself and his large family in the public eye. As the senior Kennedy frequently put it, “image is reality.”
Growing up in this atmosphere, John F. Kennedy was well prepared to step into a public world increasingly dominated by celebrity. Barnes considers JFK to be our first “movie-star president” who consciously crafted a charismatic image based on “his electric smile, his enthusiasm, and his relaxed, almost casual yet still serious, demeanor.”
The Kennedy publicity machine produced coverage of his PT-109 exploits in Reader’s Digest and newsreels of his first congressional campaign. During his congressional tenure, JFK’s name and picture appeared nationally in print despite a somewhat thin legislative record.
Barnes credited JFK for civil rights initiatives and imbuing the presidency with a “regal” look that it never had before. Referencing the president’s philandering, however, he insisted that any accomplishments during his administration are now marred by the truth of JFK’s private life. Barnes concluded his list of leadership lessons drawn from JFK with advice on “How to Avoid Embarrassment,” including staying out of compromising situations and “don’t expect people to cover up for you.”
Over the decades, JFK’s stock as an example of presidential leadership has fallen precipitously. By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reputation has grown. Philip E. Schoenberg describes him as a “political” general in the best sense of the word. He got people to work together as a team, empowered others to do their best, and never forgot that he worked for the American people. As head of allied armies in Europe during World War II, he effectively managed British and American generals, all with big egos. Ike proved a great communicator. As president, he held weekly press conferences. In 2008, questions have been raised regarding the relevance of military service to being chief executive. Ike demonstrated that such experience provides an opportunity to develop and display leadership skills.
Now, with the aid of some of Wess Roberts’ “Attilaisms,” here are some leadership fundamentals to look for in a presidential candidate.
In the end, vision, drive, energy, singleness of purpose, wise use of resources and a commitment to a destiny worthy of his efforts define the character of a chieftain who excels. As an example of the above attributes, Donald T. Phillips points to Martin Luther King, observing that a real and effective leader first provides vision and then engages those within an organization to be part of and implement that vision.
Leaders must encourage creativity, freedom of action and innovation among their subordinates. This proved to one of Lincoln’s important leadership skills. Robin Gerber observes similar traits in Eleanor Roosevelt, who organized efforts on behalf of Civil Rights and against the Red Scare of the 1950s.
You must be determined to apply massive common sense in solving complex problems. A successful presidential candidate bringing this skill to Washington would certainly be a “change agent.”
A chieftain who appears to be noble will be treated as such by both Hun and foe. Roberts portrays Attila as perhaps the first “movie-star Hun.” He understood that image is reality. In nearly all the books based on historical figures, charisma counts as an important leadership quality. Many voters choose a candidate on the basis of emotion, not specific issues.
A wise chieftain adapts – he doesn’t compromise. Please create this image in your mind. Facing changing circumstances, Attila adapts to a new position while remaining true to his vision. Someone immediately accuses him of “flip-flopping.” What would Attila do to that person? And how long afterward would incessant accusations of flip-flopping cease on all sides?
It isn’t easy being the Scourge of God, but it has its advantages in dealing with the enemy. It is not the end of the world if a chieftain occasionally loses his temper.
So in November, when contemplating how to cast your vote, simply ask yourself which candidate you think offers the best combination of JFK, Abe Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, IKE, Martin Luther King, Jesus, and Attila the Hun. That would certainly make this a “change election.”