Amanda Foreman on leadership

Surrounded on all sides: At times of absolute crisis the psychological bedrock of a great leader becomes exposed.

Earlier this week Amanda Foreman, the British biographer and historian, addressed more than 700 people at the annual Sydney Institute Dinner. Her subject was leadership, a popular topic with only 55+ million hits on Google.

Amanda argued that while no single quality can or should define a leader, it is in times of absolute crisis, when every reasonable course of action appears to be blocked, that the psychological bedrock of a great leader becomes exposed.

She then took a brief and often entertaining look at the lives of five leaders, and examined how each reacted when surrounded on every side.

1. Do not use flight as an option

Spencer Cavendish, the 8th Duke of Devonshire, achieved a double trifecta of both serving as a leader of three political parties and declining to become prime minister on three occasions. Not because he wasn’t a serious politician, but because the circumstances were never right. However, Amanda focused on his relationship with his mistress, Catherine Walters, also known as ‘Skittles’. Apparently she was extremely high maintenance, so the Duke fled to New York during the American Civil War. Skittles tracked him down but the Duke escaped in the middle of the night and caught a train to Washington. Again, Skittles caught up with the Duke but he, using a rented canoe, crossed the Potomac River, passing through both Union and Confederate lines, and finally escaping his persistent mistress. It took some time for his reputation to recover from this incident and Foreman argued that true leaders do not use flight as an option.

2. Create an ideal for others to follow

Her next subject was Spartacus who, as a slave, led a rebellion against the Romans around 72BC. After a number of tactical victories Spartacus had collected over 120,000 troops, but had no compelling vision of what he wanted to achieve. His army was beginning to disintegrate before Spartacus led them into a final battle where the slaves were routed. Foreman argues that to be successful leaders must create an ideal that others can follow. Spartacus failed because he was all action without a cause.

3. People rebel against command and control structures

The next leader considered was Lenin. The complete opposite to Spartacus, Lenin was all causes. He had a disciplined vision and ideals. He saw himself as the leader of an exclusive group, surrounded by enemies. His problem was that he thought that the only way to succeed was to subordinate individuals to the organisation, which as history has demonstrated ultimately fails. When you try to set up a command and control structure, people are likely to try and work around it, creating black markets in the process.

4. Tap into your employee’s emotional intelligence

The fourth leader considered was Sir John Monash, who Foreman described as the best and most meticulous military planner of all time. As commander of the Australian Corps he led his troops to series of successful victories. According to Foreman he was then asked to demobilise one-third of his army by the Australian Government. The troops, wishing to finish the job, staged a mutiny, which then led to a group of officers demanding punishment. Monash met separately with both parties, listened carefully to their demands, listed them on paper and promised faithfully to follow up. He then returned to his quarters, placed both lists at the bottom of his inbox and persuaded Douglas Haig, the overall Allied Commander, to attack immediately at the Battle of Amiens. The Australians fought like men possessed and it was the turning point of the war. Foreman describes this incident as one of the best examples of emotional intelligence in history. Monash understood what made people tick and used the knowledge brilliantly.

5. Keep up motivation, even in stressful situations

Foreman’s final example was ‘Chesty’ Puller, a General in the US Marine Corps and the most decorated combat marine in the corps’ history. Foreman described him as an unbelievable leader of men, due to both his understanding and ability to motivate them under stress. His most famous quote is: “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”

Foreman summarised her talk by saying that while courage, vision resourcefulness and discipline are important, true leadership is not just a sum of these abilities. The true leader is the one who has the emotional intelligence to motivate and inspire followers, particularly when there is a crisis. What we learn from these examples is that it is the secondary characteristics – the subtle qualities that encircle an outstanding talent – that often determines the outcome.


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Chris Golis - Author


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