Shakespeare was good about leadership, as about most other things. The spoof letter which caused poor Malvolio to make such a fool of himself contains words that say a lot about the subject. “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Greatness and leadership are so closely akin that the words give us a useful point of departure.
“Born great” has two possible meanings – either being born to a great position, such as that of a hereditary monarch, or possessing natural talents and/or virtues of an exceptional kind. Clearly, not everyone born to a great position is worthy of it, and relatively few have the qualities of a great leader. But the greatness of certain offices can rub off on their occupants, who may not otherwise have qualities out of the ordinary.
Some appear to have the gift of leadership, but are found to lack it when tested. Tacitus wrote of an early Roman emperor that he would have been thought capable of ruling if only he hadn’t actually been called upon to rule. Others are recognized as “born leaders” and exercise effective leadership up to a certain level, but prove disastrous failures beyond that level. It is very hard to judge the point beyond which a person will be over promoted.
“Some achieve greatness” denotes, above all, those whose greatness is self-made. But all of the really great leaders must be regarded as achievers, whatever their advantages of birth and training. Alexander the Great was born to kingship and inherited a strong army. With Aristotle as his tutor, he was perhaps the most privileged person – educationally – that there has ever been. Nevertheless, what he achieved in his short life was beyond anything that could remotely have been expected of him.
Much the same is true of Julius Caesar: He was a young Roman aristocrat whose career began as a demagogic politician, but who turned out to be a military commander of genius. The trajectory of his career could never have been predicted.
Napoleon is the supreme example of the utterly self-made leader – the man who “achieved greatness” by his own unaided efforts. When he was on his way to St Helena, he was still slightly younger than John F. Kennedy at the time of his assassination. And Napoleon was not a millionaire’s son. Of course, he was privileged in another way, having the good luck to be born in a revolutionary period, when opportunity beckoned to a man of his phenomenal talents. But luck is a precondition of most human achievements – natural leaders know how to exploit their luck.
Most of those who achieve anything in the world are ambitious, and some have very exalted ambitions which they have never the chance to realize. A few rise higher than they, or anyone else, could have imagined – and then prove equal to the challenge.
Like those born to great offices who prove, against the odds, worthy to hold them, such people have “greatness thrust upon them”
A case in point was Harry S. Truman. He was not born great, and seemed unlikely to achieve greatness beyond the level of a US Senator. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt’s incredibly casual, last-minute choice of him as running-mate for the 1944 election, soon followed by Roosevelt’s death, precipitated him into a situation where, as he said, he felt that the moon and stars had fallen on him. But he grew in the office of President and achieved a stature that surprised everyone, including probably himself. He was a man who seemed to be over promoted, but was not.
Churchill and de Gaulle, two of the greatest leaders of modern times, also depended upon chance for the fulfillment of their potential. But they had formidable talent and limitless self-belief. Destiny seemed to wait on them. They were manifestly above the ordinary run of humanity and made no attempt to conceal the fact.
By contrast, Mahatma Gandhi, though no less extraordinary a person achieved his appeal to the Indian masses by seeming to identify with them. His style was studiedly anti – charismatic, yet it gave him a charisma that was quite unique. Like many effective leaders, he used dress (or in his case relative undress) as a weapon. His loincloth was the PR equivalent of Napoleon’s black hat and grey overcoat, or Churchill’s boiler suit. (When Gandhi met George V at Buckingham Palace, and was asked afterwards if he felt at a disadvantage wearing only a loincloth, he replied cheerfully: “Oh no, His Majesty was wearing enough for both of us”)
Leadership is partly a confidence trick, and those who practice it cannot afford to be too predictable. Some have alternated ruthlessness with generosity (this was one of Caesar’s trademarks). Others have appeared at times to be listless and drifting, only to spring suddenly to life (this was Stanley Baldwin’s style).
Democratic leaders have the difficult task of both guiding the people and seeming to respond to the popular will. Autocrats are obviously freer to exercise leadership, but among them the most successful have been aware of the need to be loved and admired, as well as feared. Just as many of the best democratic leaders have been natural autocrats, restrained only by conscience and realism. The essential qualities of a good leader are much the same, whatever the environment.
Of all the qualities needed for leadership, only one is indispensable – courage. Without it, all the others are more or less useless. Courage has been shown by all who we recognize as true leaders, from Alexander the Great to Margaret Thatcher. A leader must have the ability to take hard decisions and calculated risks. This rule applies at all levels and in all situations – in school, factory, boardroom or sporting arena, no less than on the battlefield or in the council chamber.
Leaders have to give courage to others while creating the illusion that they know exactly what they are doing. In Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” when one of Caesar’s officers says something intended to lift his spirits, he replies witheringly: “Do you presume to encourage me?”
Shaw, like Shakespeare, knew what leadership was about ….