6 Leadership Lessons from the Past

Wellington in thoughtful pose
Duke of Wellington

On the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I read about how a small group of German soldiers turned Wellington’s fortune in his favour.  Whilst reading, it struck me that there is still much to be learned about history and how those lessons can still be applied in the workplace and our daily lives as leaders.

The Battle of Waterloo was not going well for Wellington. Bonaparte’s army was advancing quickly on the outnumbered British forces. Allied forces were too far away to provide much-needed reinforcement in time. It is now on the 8th June 1815, that a small but strategically important farmhouse, defended by a handful of German soldiers would mark a turning point in the Battle.

For over an hour, less than 400 Hanoverian soldiers held off over 3,000 of Napoleon’s troops, creating the time needed for Wellington’s allies to come to his aid. The small force was so well organised and determined, that they suffered only 21 fatalities, while the French amassed some 2,000 casualties.

This epic defence, reminiscent of the 300 Spartans, was led by Major George Baring. He was astute in deploying his scant resources to make best use of the farmhouse layout. He had his men lie down to make smaller targets, while he remained on horseback to ensure he could oversee events and his men could see him. Armed with highly accurate rifles, this small force had one other advantage. They shared a strong, common bond. For more than 10 years they lived and fought together, to free their homeland from Napoleon’s invasion some 12 years earlier. They were well armed, well led and most of all they were passionate about their cause. Although they were eventually defeated, their exploits handed the victory to Wellington and his place in history was assured.

This story inspired my blog. For me it highlighted 6 important lessons about leadership:

Passion – people fight for something they believe in and go beyond expectations. What are people passionate about in your business? Is that passion shared throughout the organisation?

Visibility – Leaders need to be able to see the bigger picture. They also need to be visible in the organisation and be seen to be putting themselves on the line. Are your leaders visible on the front line? How well do they demonstrate that they understand the implications of their strategy?

Resources – to get the best result, invest in the resources needed to do the job. Expecting people to deliver high performance with inadequate resources risks failure and demoralises the team. Does your business invest in the resources critical to deliver high performance? Do systems and processes add value or create bottlenecks?

Trust – Major Baring led half his force, while splitting the remainder under the command of his officers to defend land around the farmhouse. He had to trust totally on his Officers’ ability to make the right decisions. Equally Baring’s men had to have implicit trust in his leadership – their lives were literally at stake. What level of trust exists in your organisation across levels of leadership? Would you stake your career on your team’s decisions?

Communication – No mobile phones or GPS tracking. Communication had to be precise, timely and relevant. How successful and effective is communication within your team, across teams, and throughout the organisation? Can everyone recognise the golden thread that links business objectives and individual action?

Recognition – Almost everyone knows about Wellington and Waterloo, but what about Major Baring? How do you recognise those who have contributed to your success?

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