The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers

The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers

by Jocelyn Davis
The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers

The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers

by Jocelyn Davis



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"A book of substance that is a joy to read." - SUCCESS magazine

You don't need a big title or a business degree in order to lead with impact. What you need is practical wisdom: the insight, judgment, and strength of character that all great leaders have, but that most business schools and corporate workshops don't teach. The Greats on Leadership gets you there.

Jocelyn Davis takes you on an in-depth tour of the best leadership ideas of the past 25 centuries, featuring classic authors from Plato to Winston Churchill, Shakespeare to Jane Austen, C.G. Jung to Peter Drucker, and many more. In a style both thought provoking and entertaining, she shows how -history's great writers have always been, and still are, the real leadership gurus.

Davis spells out the behaviors that distinguish true leaders from misleaders and covers 20 specific leadership topics, including:
Leadership Traps (Shakespeare)
Change (Machiavelli)
Power (Sophocles)
Dilemmas (Madison, Hamilton)
Communication (Lincoln, Pericles)
Personality Types (Jung)
Motivation (Frankl)
Judgment (Maupassant, Melville, Austen, Shaw)
Character (Churchill, Plutarch, Shelley, Joyce)

Each chapter begins with a synopsis of a great work by the author and then draws out the key leadership insights, weaving them together with business examples, the best contemporary research, and tools to help put it all into practice. In the last two chapters Davis presents a new way to think about leadership levels, framing them in terms of the impact you have rather than the title on your business card.

Whether you're a recent graduate or MBA searching for something more inspiring than the standard textbook, a new manager looking for something deeper than the typical how-to book, or an experienced executive seeking ideas to lift you to the next level, this remarkably readable and practical guide will set you on the road to becoming a great leader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857889925
Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 05/19/2016
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: eBook
Pages: 288
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Jocelyn Davis is an author and consultant with 25 years' experience in the corporate learning industry. Before founding her company, Seven Learning, she was head of R&D for The Forum Corporation, a global leadership development firm. She is co-author of Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution (Harvard Business Press) and has published widely on leadership, strategy execution, and workplace learning. Her clients have included companies such as Microsoft, Disney, and Unilever.
Known as an exceptional leader herself, she is the recipient of awards for excellence in management and product innovation. She holds an M.A. in Philosophy. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and daughter. @JocelynRDavis

Read an Excerpt

The Greats On Leadership

Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers

By Jocelyn Davis

Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Jocelyn R. Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85788-992-5



The book of Exodus tells how a man with a speech impediment, shaky self-esteem, and a tendency to lean on his relatives is chosen by God to lead a nation of 600,000 people to freedom. Moses doesn't fit the standard conception of a great leader, yet his may be the world's best-known leadership story, given that the Bible is the top-selling book of all time and The Ten Commandments one of the top-grossing films. It's a good place to start, for if we have any preconceived or superficial notions about leaders — such as the myth described below — Moses' story is apt to clear them away, leaving us open to some deeper truths.


The word charisma comes from the Greek, meaning "a favor one receives without merit of one's own; a gift of divine grace." Today it has come to mean the ability to captivate people with an eloquently expressed vision of the future. The hallmark of the charismatic leader is the stirring speech delivered from a high perch: a horse, a cafeteria table, the deck of a sailing ship. The image runs deep in Western culture and, despite some debunking in recent years, in the world of leadership development. Job descriptions for senior leadership roles invariably list "executive presence" (code for charisma) as a key requirement, and leadership competency models usually include a section called Inspiring Others. Great leaders of the past, from Julius Caesar to Joan of Arc, are frequently described by history books as charismatic and their successes attributed to charisma. And in one of the first leadership seminars I ever attended, the instructor began by stating flatly, "Leadership is a matter of charisma. The trick is to figure out what charisma is."

None of this would be problematic if charisma were seen as icing on the cake of leadership ability and hiring decisions were made based on the quality of the cake. Too often, however, leaders are hired or promoted based on the icing, and that's when things go awry, as in the following example.

Oliver, a senior marketing professional, had just landed the top Consumer Affairs job at HomeCo, a global consumer products company. In the cover letter to Oliver's interview packet, the executive recruiter had this to say: "His experience is impeccable, but more important, he's on the leading edge. When you speak with him, you'll see he's got some exciting ideas and knows how to drive change. Quite frankly, he's a visionary."

Oliver entered the company at a turbulent time. An organizational restructuring was underway, which meant, among other things, layoffs for about 30 of his group of 100. While the restructuring decisions hadn't been his, his employees badly needed communication about the ongoing changes — communication he failed to provide. Five months passed before he scheduled an all-team conference call, and during those months he held only sporadic one-on-one meetings with his direct reports. He mostly spent time with executives, and in those situations his charisma was on full display.

Oliver talked convincingly about the results he had achieved in previous jobs. He said the field of consumer affairs was mired in the past and needed to be redefined as part of an end-to-end customer experience. He spoke about the new technologies he planned to install, the new ways he would utilize social media, and the links to be forged with Marketing and Product Development. Most impressive of all, he talked like a businessperson, something no previous head of Consumer Affairs at HomeCo had been particularly good at. But when he took the same tack in his first team conference call, delivering an energetic spiel about the group's future and asking for questions, there was dead silence. Later, one employee explained the reaction this way: "You can't be absent for five months and then call a meeting and try to be all charismatic."

Oliver's departure was announced half a year after he had arrived. Given his obvious intelligence, one might wonder whether he was an effective business leader who simply lacked some warm fuzzies. It later transpired, though, that during his brief tenure he had significantly overspent his entire annual budget. A year later, the Consumer Affairs group was still digging itself out of the financial hole. The consensus at HomeCo by then was that Oliver, though undeniably charismatic, was no leader.

It appears, then, that charisma isn't sufficient for effective leadership. But is it even necessary? Our first featured classic suggests not.


Moses, the central character of Exodus, doesn't fit the standard image of a great leader. Although by story's end his confidence has grown, throughout the first ten chapters he barely says a word except to express doubt that he'll meet expectations. Some modern observers have called him an introvert (see "On tall shoulders: Susan Cain on leadership myths and truths"); I'd go further and call him a Nervous Nellie.

In the film The Ten Commandments, Moses shows proud defiance as he's arrested and exiled for killing an Egyptian overseer; in the book, however, he simply runs away when he realizes his crime has come to light. "Surely the matter is known!" he says (Exodus 2:14), and flees the country in a panic. In his new homeland he finds a wife and settles down as a shepherd, working for his father-in-law. For many years he displays no larger ambitions. Then one day he gets the big call: God appears to him in the burning bush and tells him to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. These four statements are Moses' response:

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, that I should bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt? (3:11)

I will say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they will say to me, What is his name? — what shall I say to them? (3:13)

But they will not trust me, and will not hearken to my voice, indeed, they will say, YHWH has not been seen by you! (4:1)

Please, my Lord, no man of words am I ... for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I! (4:10)


In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes in praise of introverts: those who are often described as shy but who might more accurately be called thoughtful. Introverts shun self-promotion and loud displays in favor of taking a quiet stand or making a quiet contribution.

Cain is a notable contemporary debunker of the leadership-as-charisma myth and champion of a different view of the behaviors that make a leader. She tells of history's many "limelight-avoiding" leaders, among them Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt — and Moses, who, she says, "was not the brash, talkative type who would organize road trips and hold forth in a classroom at Harvard Business School." Instead, he climbed a mountain to speak with God one on one and wrote down, carefully, everything he learned on two stone tablets.

"We don't ask why God chose as his prophet a stutterer with a public speaking phobia," Cain says. "But we should."

* * *

God tries to set Moses' mind at ease. He explains his identity, promises support, demonstrates how to work some magic to impress the Hebrews, and says not to worry about the public speaking because he'll tell Moses exactly what to say. After all that reassurance, Moses' fifth and final remark is essentially, "Can't you find someone else?" — whereupon God loses his temper. He tells Moses his brother Aaron can be the front man, and makes it clear the discussion is over.

Moses, probably seeing no alternative, packs his bags. He sets off for Egypt, meets up with Aaron, and informs him without enthusiasm of their assignment. God arranges ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free the slaves, and through the first nine, Moses says and does very little. Aaron does the talking and wields the staff that turns the Nile to blood and summons forth the frogs and gnats, while Moses stays in the background, relaying God's instructions. It's not until the approach of the tenth plague — the killing of the first-born of Egyptand the Passover of Hebrew homes — that Moses says more than a few words to Pharaoh or speaks at all to his own people. And, surprisingly, it is right before he makes this speech that his leadership status is noted for the first time: by now, the narrator says, Moses is "considered exceedingly great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharaoh's servants and in the eyes of the people" (11:3). Inspiring speeches clearly aren't the reason, for he hasn't made any.

The charismatic leader of myth is also a lone leader. It's always one general, not two, making the rousing speech from the back of the horse. It's Norma Rae who stands on the table in the textile factory holding up the UNION sign, not Norma Rae and her sister. We tend to picture our leaders solo. In reality, though, leaders rarely stand alone, as we see in the rest of the Exodus story.

Gradually, during the departure from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the long trek through the wilderness, Aaron recedes into the background and Moses steps forward. By the time the people arrive in the region where Moses' wife and in-laws are still living, he has become the tribe's sole leader, and now his portrayal begins to jibe with his popular image: the robed and bearded patriarch standing on a rock, above and apart, communing with a higher power. But then — just as we start to feel that this is the Moses we know — he makes his first big mistake. His father-in-law, Jethro, calls attention to it:

Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from daybreak until sunset. When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he had to do for the people, he said: What kind of matter is this that you do for the people — why do you sit alone, while the entire people stations itself around you from daybreak until sunset? (18:13–14)

Moses explains that the people bring their disputes to him because they know he has a direct line to God; nobody can judge as he can. Jethro doesn't disagree, but nevertheless insists that the arrangement won't work:

Not good is this matter, as you do it! You will become worn out, yes, worn out ... for this matter is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone ... you are to have the vision to select from all the people men of caliber ... every great matter they shall bring before you, but every small matter they shall judge by themselves. Make it light upon you, and let them bear it with you. (18:17-22)

Moses takes Jethro's advice and starts to hire and delegate. He chooses "men of caliber" and creates an organizational structure that would be familiar to any modern-day employee, with "chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens" (18:25), each authorized to handle decisions of a certain magnitude. Steeped as we are in the myth of the heroic leader, we may find the whole scene strangely corporate: Moses the Seer must build an organization. A filmed version would show him drawing organizational charts and holding morning meetings with the chiefs.

So much for the charisma myth. Oliver's story shows that charisma is insufficient for effective leadership; Exodus shows us it's also unnecessary. Moses isn't the least bit charismatic, nor is he required or even encouraged to stand alone, yet thousands of people follow him and he achieves great things.


None of this is to say that eloquent communication isn't helpful or that individual heroism isn't sometimes needed; it's just that these aren't the marks of a true leader. But if they aren't, what is? What is a leader, if not the charismatic star who rides at the head of the army? Put another way, how can we tell true leaders from false?

There are three clues, three behaviors that characterize a real leader. In this chapter I'll review them briefly, along with three corresponding types of "misleader." And in Part VI, I'll revisit these truths, expand on them, and use them to define a new set of leadership levels relating to impact rather than business title.

First of all, in the words of the 6-year-old daughter of one of my long-ago colleagues, leaders go first. Good leaders step forward when others stay back. They speak when others stay silent. They forge ahead where no path has been forged, and they set an example for others to follow. You won't always see them out in front; often they are found working alongside their team or taking up a position in the wings so their people can shine in the spotlight. But wherever they choose to stand at a particular moment, it won't be against a wall, butt covered, observing which way the wind blows. Conversely, there are plenty of high-status individuals who take just that stance, and though they may have leadership titles on their business cards, they aren't leaders, but lackeys (see "Assessment tool: Which misleader?").

assessment tool WHICH MISLEADER?

Think of one of the worst leaders you know — a misleader. For each question below, select the statement that fits best. Then use the key at the end to interpret your results.

Repeat the quiz for some other misleaders, and finally, ask yourself: In your own worst moments, in which of the three directions do you lean? What might you do to avoid this tendency?

1. How does this person generally behave?

A. Sticks to official rules and policies no matter what

B. Takes whatever action will maintain or extend their power

C. Does whatever the bigger bosses will approve of

2. What is this person's general demeanor?

A. Businesslike; rarely makes eye contact; often too rushed to talk

B. Often seems angry; yells and screams when things go wrong

C. Pleasant to your face, but runs you down behind your back

3. How does this person spend most of their time?

A. Checking up on employees and/or crunching data

B. Often absent; when present, criticizing people's work or demanding explanations for errors

C. Out of sight, seemingly doing very little

4. What does this person use to maintain control over subordinates?

A. Systems and processes

B. Spying and informants

C. The authority of higher-level managers

5. What seems to be this person's overriding aim?

A. To make sure people follow the rules

B. To make sure people fear them

C. To make sure people leave them alone and demand no decisions


Mostly As This person is a bureaucrat

Mostly Bs This person is a tyrant

Mostly Cs This person is a lackey

* * *

Moses, despite his natural shyness, isn't a wall-leaner; on the contrary, he seems inclined to step forward. Having fled Egypt and settled down in Midyan as a shepherd, he goes out one day to tend his flock and sees something odd: a bush on fire that is not consumed. Another man might run away, or maybe just give a shrug and move on, but Moses says, "Now let me turn aside that I may see this great sight — why the bush does not burn up!" (3:3). Then, "when YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see" and calls Moses' name from out of the fire (now most people really would run), Moses says simply, "Here I am." Perhaps the incident was God's first leadership test: Is this a man who will go see? Is this a man who will go first?

Second, leaders create hope. Leaders help us see the light at the end of the tunnel, or throw us a lifebelt when we're sinking under the waves. "A leader is a dealer in hope," said Napoleon Bonaparte, and the opposite of the hope-dealer is the fear-dealing tyrant. While some tough-minded political thinkers (most notably Niccolò Machiavelli; see Chapter 3) have argued that it's more important for a leader to be respected than loved, even they acknowledge that a leader who makes us feel terrible about the future is far less likely to succeed than a leader who inspires belief in a better day.

Although you might suspect me of allowing charisma to creep back into our leadership definition, creating hope isn't usually about charismatic speeches to crowds. More often, it's about simple words and deeds. One of the most inspiring parts of the Exodus story is when Moses explains to the Hebrews, very briefly, how they must paint their door frames with lamb's blood so that God's "bringer of ruin" will pass over their houses on the night of the final plague, sparing their first-born, and how they must tell their children the story of that night (12:21-27). It's not a speech — just a set of instructions, really — but with it, Moses plants an image in the people's minds of God's awesome power, his astounding love for them, and the future they can anticipate thanks to that love. As a result, they "bow low" and do as he says, hope renewed.

Finally, leaders focus on people. In the words of Grace Murray Hopper, computer scientist and rear admiral in the US Navy, "You manage things; you lead people." Naturally, there are plenty of managers who have excellent people skills. Management as a role, however, is primarily about using policies, systems, and processes to control the activities of an organization. Things are much easier to control than people, so for someone playing a pure management role, people are secondary to things. (Peter Drucker quipped, "Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.") Leadership, in contrast, is focused on human beings: developing them, mobilizing them, earning their trust. When those in authority emphasize management over leadership, they may become bureaucrats: lords of procedure, oblivious to the humanity of their "human resources."


Excerpted from The Greats On Leadership by Jocelyn Davis. Copyright © 2016 Jocelyn R. Davis. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

What’s in This Book and How to Use It
The Classic Art of Leadership
1. One Myth, Three Truths - Moses and Exodus
2. Eight Traps - William Shakespeare
3. Change - Niccolò Machiavelli
4. Justice - Plato
5. Power - Sophocles
6. Authority - William Shakespeare
7. Character, Defined - Winston Churchill
8. Crises - William Shakespeare
9. Competition - Hannibal and other great captains
10. Dilemmas - Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
11. Communication - Pericles and Abraham Lincoln
12. Character, Developed - Plutarch
13. Motivation - Viktor Frankl
14. Personality - Carl Jung
15. Decisions - Roald Dahl
16. Culture - Ruth Benedict
17. Character, Anchored - Mary Shelley
18. Relationships - Guy de Maupassant
19. Accountability - Herman Melville
20. Talent - Jane Austen
21. Vision - George Bernard Shaw
22. Character, Revealed - James Joyce
23. Three Levels - Greats revisited
24. The Fourth Level - Lao Tzu
Looking for Overland
Launching a Leadership Study Group

Notes and Citations
About the Author

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