Lessons on Leadership from 3 Great Statesmen

(This story precedes the advice with one of many examples where I’ve seen people thrown into leadership roles unexpectedly)

If you’ve ever been to a high school sporting event, especially in a small town, you know the atmosphere of adolescent adrenaline and anticipation in the air. The energy and team pride consumes you even if you don’t know anyone in the game. If you’ve been lucky enough to play in one of these games then you undoubtedly know the feeling down to the soundtrack in the locker room. 

Being from Canada those experiences are highlighted by playing in tiny out of town hockey arenas where the only heat in the building is aimed at the people watching from the stands. Mid season it was commonly -30 degrees or colder, you’d just hope to get enough ice time to keep your toes from freezing on the bench. 

I wasn’t the type of kid to remember every tournament or playoff game but there was one in particular that stood out. I had gotten called up by a well respected coach to play a game for the AAA team, I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, and this was a proving ground to be able to make it to the next level. He told me I’d be slotted as part of the last defensive pairing since one of their senior guys went out with an injury the game before. To be honest I have no idea what happened to the kid and didn’t even care to ask. All I remember from the time I got to the arena to the first intermission was sitting in the dressing room feeling like I sat down in the wrong University class, realized I was in the wrong place but stayed the whole period just to avoid the awkwardness of getting up and walking out. 

On my usual team back in AA we were somewhat competitive but our player-coach interactions mainly consisted of positive encouragement or sarcastic jabs. I wasn’t sure if that was based on a lack of experience or pressure from overbearing parents to be “fair” to their kids. In AAA I had no idea what to expect. 

No more than 10 seconds after everyone made it back into the room the coach flew open the door and literally berated the whole team for a solid 5 minutes. It was like a mix between Kanye West trying to fight a cameraman and John Mcenroe yelling at an umpire except you were watching it in real life when the undertone was more serious than funny. Luckily, I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me since I think I got a total of two shifts and touched the puck one whole time that period, needless to say my toes were freezing. 

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The relevance of the story isn’t to scare people away from putting their kids in competitive sports but to empathize with people who have been handed leadership roles unexpectedly. More than ten years later I’ve only just came across what it means to be a true statesmen and the correlation to great leadership is now obvious. Whether you’re a parent volunteering to coach a team, like in this case, or you’re part of a startup that just hired 50 people and all of a sudden you find yourself a manager adopting these characteristics are sure to make you infinitely better at handling the situation.

The individuals I’m talking about are Pericles, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. While unfamiliar to most I’ll draw comparison to the tech leaders of our day who are building their company’s with the same characteristics in mind whether they know it or not.

By definition a statesman is a skilled, experienced, well respected political leader which is an elite club on it’s own. But Brett & Kate from the website Art of Manliness hold this status to an even higher regard. They define a democratic statesmen as being someone who is very different from your average politician. This person is a free leader of free people and must posses four very unique qualities.

1. A bedrock of principles.

2. A moral compass.

3. A vision

4. The ability to create a consensus to achieve their vision.

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Two broken sticks and one shattered water bottle later we were ready to head back to the ice. I gathered we were doing a shit job and weren’t trying hard enough but I had absolutely no clue what was going to be different about this period. I don’t even think we were losing the game so I just assumed that was motivation at this level. I’d imagine that there are plenty of different successful coaching styles in sports, and harsh criticism might even be one of them but without an idea of purpose or end result simply yelling do better or suck less is not a strategy. I don’t blame anyone that finds themselves in those types of leadership situations, I’d imagine they are all just doing the best they can. But clearly the difference is the people who take the time to plan in advance so when the time does come they’re prepared. I’d hate to get called upon in a professional setting or worse as a coach of my son’s team and have to resort to yelling or intimidation because I had no other way of motivating people. 

(Side note: This is a democratic point of view and aligns with my own personal beliefs. You’re free to your own opinion, political or otherwise, but I feel as though these qualities are present in the most effective leaders.)

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1. A bedrock of principles.

In the political example, to quote AoM, “The statesman builds his platform on a foundation of firm, unchanging, fundamental truths. These are the things he believes at his very core, his overarching philosophy.”
More important than strategy or tools or even talent is a leaders ability to communicate the principles they operate on. It’s no coincidence that all of the listed statesmen were also described as world class orators.

Abraham Lincoln, acknowledged as being the greatest President in U.S. history, used this skill in his famous Gettysburg address. There he spoke towards the primary principle he believed in which was human equality.

In more modern times Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, is a great example of someone operating on a bedrock of principles. He put an enormous amount of effort into thinking about how to best communicate the company’s main principle of inclusion to not only their employees but the entire world. What they came up with was the belo logo and their slogan “belong anywhere”. Something seemingly insignificant to most company’s has helped them create an amazing culture, recently being reinforced with their award for best place to work in 2016 by Glassdoor.

2. A moral compass.

AoM talks about a moral compass as being rooted in a clear sense of absolute right and absolute wrong. In a political arena they believe in their own truths with opinions that don’t waiver with popularity or public opinion.

I would take this a step further to say that great statesmen are morally courageous. Courage, or the ability to face danger and endure pain, on it’s own is a personality trait and can be given to someone engaged in a wide range of activities. But to be morally courageous, where someone combines bravery with a disregard for their own personal interests is a virtue.

The main differences between the two is actually the action of standing up for what you know to be right. To understand morality by way of intentions, beliefs or even what we say is actually not indicative of being moral. Your morality is determined only by what you do and how you behave.

Winston Churchill might be the best example of a statesmen who is morally courageous if for nothing else but his role in saving western civilization from Nazism. Churchill became Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war, stepping in as the country’s last chance against the spread of Nazism. He had previously took action against the spread of evil campaigning the allies to rearm but now spent time on radio broadcasts and giving speeches inspiring his fellow countrymen toward victory. He also routinely sacrificed his own best interests and safety by being in the line of fire some 50 times and even intentionally seeking out danger being aboard bomber planes flying over enemy territory.

“Do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.” – Winston Churchill

With a lot less on the line I think Reid Hastings and Netflix have done an amazing job being morally courageous. He and his chief talent officer at the time Patty McCord came up with the now famous 124 slide culture document that outlines the way they make decisions. One of the main differences between this document and anything similar another company might come up with is outlined on slide 6. “The actual values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.” That’s to say not only did they take the time to create a list of the nine skills and behaviours they value in employees but they take action based on them and the public stories to prove it.

3. A vision

“A statesman has a clear vision of what his country and his people can become. He knows where he wants to take them and what it will take to get there.” – AoM

The difference between a leader’s vision and the mission they’re on is that the vision is how they envision the world once they execute on the mission. For example Pericles had a vision of Athens being a beacon for all of Greece and an example of what the Greek culture could accomplish if it focused all it’s resources. Not only did he oversee the construction of the Acropolis, including the still standing 23k sq/ft Parthenon, but he was largely responsible for defining Athenian democratic culture that promoted arts, literature and philosophy. These were only a fraction of the actions he took to follow through on the mission of redefining the city of Athens.

A more familiar example might be Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s mission of connecting people while working towards their vision of an open and connected world. Or from a previous example Brian Chesky and Airbnb envision a world where you can belong anywhere.

One of the people in the modern business world best at articulating their vision is Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. He talks about their vision of “creating economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce”. That vision might be 5 or 10 years out but the day to day mission is connecting business professionals, the mission is what will allow them to realize their goal. The mission portion is a critical piece of the puzzle, it needs to be measurable and actionable. Clearly defining this allows you to take calculated risks in the direction of your goals.

To again reference a previous example Churchill spoke about taking risks. “youth seeks ‘adventure for adventure’s sake.’ Invigorating your own excitement is not an unworthy goal, but as you mature, you should shift some of your adventurous impulses towards more productive ends – endeavors that benefit not only you, but others as well.”

4. The ability to create a consensus around their vision.

Without the ability to master this last quality all efforts to become a great leader will be in vain. The statesmen will enlists his people to support his ideas and initiatives, therefore he needs them to believe in his vision. But because he is a democratic leader he doesn’t turn to PR campaigns or propaganda, instead he uses his skills as an expert communicator and orator. The strength in his words comes from the fact he actually believes what he’s saying and follows through on the promises he makes.

While leading a country divided over slavery and in the midst of a civil war Lincoln might have had one of the greatest challenges building consensus around his vision of upholding the greatest democracy in the world. In these seemingly impossible conditions it was a man who was entirely self taught, his mother died when he was nine and his father never learned to read or write, that had the empathy to understand people’s opinions from both sides of the slavery debate. Rather than antagonizing plantation owners who were against slavery emancipation he was quoted saying  “If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” Ultimately it was the fact that Lincoln was able to communicate he fundamentally cared about people, that he understood their challenges and the sacrifices they made that led to his influence and success upholding the Union and abolishing slavery.

“In order to win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” – Abraham Lincoln

For a more recent example I have to go back to Airbnb because of the loyalty and sheer passion everyone in the Airbnb community has for that company and their vision. Brian has been able to create a massive consensus around this vision because of the way he leads with empathy. If you haven’t already heard their story it’s packed full of examples of people who literally made it through the 08′ recession by renting out rooms in their place or stories of tragedy striking and a host they stayed with years ago being the first person to call and find out if they were ok. They even go so far as to give out travel vouchers to their employees quarterly to get let them explore the world and get closer to their hosts(customers). With over 50 million users globally and on average 500,000 people staying in an Airbnb every night I’d say they’re doing a pretty good job.

As I got older I never ended up playing hockey competitively but I did learn a few good lessons about leadership. On the other side of whatever you’re after there’s a person who’s guided by their own experiences and has their own motivations. I’d encourage you to empathize with them no matter the relationship. But don’t be caught off guard when given the opportunity to lead, or serve as Churchill would have put it, adopt the qualities of the statesman (live by a set of principles, be morally courageous, have a vision and build a consensus around it) and your team will achieve great things.