10 Great Strategists

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We are all struggling to be better leaders. We worry about whether we are smart enough, whether we are wise enough; can we do the right thing, do people respect us?


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The empowering news is that all these fears are natural, all leaders have had to overcome these and other fears, and we can learn from them. History provides us with many role models. Our experiences of being inadequate leaders are not new and they are not unique to us.

Throughout history, leaders, and leaders-in-the-making have struggled with themselves, the deficiencies in their backgrounds and the context in which they had to work. Leaders who have gone before us have bequeathed a rich legacy of extraordinary achievement, overcoming insurmountable obstacles and beneficially touching the lives of thousands, if not millions of people.

We owe it to ourselves to actively understand how other leaders have conquered the challenge of leadership.  We find them in business, in sports, in the arts and the military. Each one is unique, and yet we share a common humanity with them. They, too, were in a place like that which we find ourselves in now. They can inspire us, motivate us; they speak to us from the past, but their lessons for us are as fresh and current as of the latest social media post.

We can equally learn from what they did, and from what they should not have done. Not all historical leaders were good people.

To not study their lessons and the lessons of so many others is a missed opportunity to become better leaders ourselves.

Here are some historical and present-day leaders from whom we can draw certain lessons:

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE) was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. His works focus much more on alternatives to battle, such as stratagem, delay, the use of spies and alternatives to war itself, the making and keeping of alliances, the use of deceit, and a willingness to submit, at least temporarily, to more powerful foes.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan lived from 1162 to 1227. Coming from an obscure background and a harsh childhood in Mongolia, he created the largest land empire in history, spanning much of Asia and Eastern Europe.  He was constantly on the move, using his warriors on rugged steppe ponies to surprise his enemies.

There is no surviving image of what he looked like, and we have no idea of where he was buried. He introduced a rigid system of military governance based on merit, loyalty, and achievement. He was cruel and thought nothing of exterminating his opponents.

And yet, he was profoundly open to new ideas, regardless of where they came from. His warriors killed most of the enemies in battle but they would often spare the lives of craftsmen, engineers, and anyone who knew how to read, write, or translate different languages.

Genghis Khan wanted to steal their best war tactics. But he also wanted to learn about their culture and society. He is famous for saying, “A leader can never be happy until his people are happy.” Such is the enigma of Genghis Khan.

Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon (356 – 323 BCE), commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. By the age of 30, he had created a vast empire that stretched from Macedonia to Egypt and from Greece to part of India.

He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered to be one of history’s most successful military commanders. Stop and think about this – at the age of 30, Alexander ran a successful empire that stretched from Greece to India, and with no paved highways, no digitised logistics and no digital infrastructure.

His military achievements and success in battle make him the measure with which many modern military leaders compare themselves. Military academies throughout the world still teach his tactics. He is often ranked among the most influential people in human history.

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