Simms Jenkins is Founder + CEO of BrightWave, an Ansira company & the leading email agency, and author of two definitive books on email.
Like most of you, I have had to mix up my routine personally and professionally during the pandemic. One escape I have found worthy has been reading epic biographies of two of the most famous leaders in our history: Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Both books were written by Andrew Roberts and were my first deep dives on the often misunderstood European legends. I started the Churchill biography in anticipation of a London and Paris spring break, which alas was sidelined due to the fast-developing Covid-19 crisis.
I knew I was going to be schooled big-time about both of their lives and accomplishments. And as a history major in college, that was the draw. What I was not prepared for were the many learnings I found applicable to leadership during this uniquely challenging time.
Here are my Cliffs Notes on what modern leaders can learn from these two historical men:
Bias Toward Action
The impact that these men had on their countries, society and history is unfathomable and too long to list here. The thing that stands out to me, at the very top of the list of shared traits between Churchill and Bonaparte, is that they truly achieved massive success when the stakes were as high as they could be. They accomplished so much, largely because they were men of action. They did not merely make speeches or seek glory but laid out a plan and often achieved it.
Vision Is Crucial
You can’t achieve big things without having a north star of where your business is headed and what is possible. Churchill’s north star was largely tied to defending Great Britain from the looming German threat. Napoleon’s north star was achieving a massive empire spreading across Europe with dynastic qualities. Vision during a crisis is even more important with your stakeholders hanging on your every word. Business leaders must define the light at the end of the tunnel.
In today’s world, this is already a challenge. And now, most of us are juggling working from home with families, distractions and more. Churchill and Bonaparte were highly visible during a crisis. Whether it was inspecting damage to civilian homes or talking to the front line of the military, their presence inspired their citizens and brought confidence during a shaky time. As leaders today, we have to find a way to break through video meetings and show we are there with our employees.
Seize The Opportunity
For many businesses, this time is a catalyst to make big changes or seize market share. Churchill and Bonaparte never wasted an opportunity, regardless of the situation. Nations and companies are transformed during a crisis. You have to decide whether you will play offense or defense and where your company will land post-Covid-19.
Competitive Natures Rule
Most leaders I know are incredibly competitive, and Churchill and Bonaparte were no exception. You must want to win and advance in good and bad times, and that attitude can help lift your team to follow during uncertain times.
Communication Is King
Every day since mid-March seems to bring a tidal wave of new information, news and confusion. The most important feedback I have heard from our team is how much they appreciate the proactive and clear nature of our communications related to our business — any changes, impact and game plan.
These European leaders, especially Churchill, were master communicators. I believe that Churchill will go down in history as one of the best orators ever to grace the Earth. He spent so much time planning his speeches, the nuances of them and anticipated reactions as much as the words. Leaders today should take note.
Humor Greases The Wheels
Both Bonaparte and Churchill knew the power of a well-timed and humorous comment to disarm, charm and lighten the mood during the most serious of times. Good leaders should know how to do this for maximum impact — we all can use more humor these days.
Developing Leaders And Loyalty Is A Must
Both leaders were very focused on their legacy but also in ensuring a tight circle of trusted advisors and developing the next generation of leaders. Every business should focus more on this for the short- and long-term. “Loyalty” is an often misused term in the business world, but great companies have great leaders, and loyalty is often a key ingredient. I certainly have seen it in play with many of our long-term leaders.
Ambition Doesn’t Sleep
I don’t think I have ever encountered any humans with the ambition of Churchill and Napoleon. They both had set routines. Churchill had a daily nap (and a lot of brandy), and Napoleon wrote countless letters and directives every day. Their ambitions never stopped even after setbacks. They were banished politically and physically, and still made comebacks. To achieve great things, one must persevere for the greater good.
I hope this inspires you to do great things in unusual times. I will leave you with this quote from Churchill: “This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.”
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Author: Simms Jenkins, Forbes Councils Member