What Lessons Can World History Teach Today’s Leaders?

In the Spring of 1940, the German Army invaded France with a speed and efficiency that stunned the world. How could mighty France fall to the Germans in mere days?

During World War I, generals on both sides planned offensives in excruciating detail down to meticulous timetables of what and when each unit should do. In the fog of war, however, things didn’t always go according to plan, resulting in confusion and stalemate.  It happened repeatedly in offensives on both sides; the Somme, Passchendael, Verdun, the Michael Offensive, etc. Occasionally it would work—like the Battle of Tannenberg—but more often than not, the top-down leadership approach was a complete mess.

The Allies relaxed after World War I, confident in the knowledge that the German threat was neutralized. The Germans, on the other hand, went home and immediately began to analyze and innovate, resulting in a new combat doctrine they called “Bewegunsgskrieg” which roughly means war of movement. 

One of the Bewegunsgkrieg innovations was an incredible coordination between units and unprecedented speed that shocked and disrupted enemy battle plans. Another key aspect of Bewegunskrieg was distributed leadership. Rather than plan battles meticulously (as in WW1), German generals gave their field commanders objectives, but allowed them broad discretion in how to achieve them.  Field commanders would then give their subordinates sub-objectives and the same broad discretion, all the way down the chain of command. The result was incredible command efficiency that would take the Allies years to understand and copy. 

This distributed leadership approach works wonders in business as well. While a team member receiving an objective with broad discretion on how to achieve it will probably make mistakes, because they are closer to the actual day-to-day goings on of the task in question, they are likely to make fewer mistakes than leaders that are further removed.

Giving employees such discretion has countless benefits. For one thing, they will be more engaged and feel more trusted. Employees who feel trusted typically live up to it by stepping up their game. Additionally, they will have better morale and will be more loyal to the organization. 

“The transformational effect of trust building in the workplace does not require huge budgets. It requires leadership teams who are ready to make employees’ working days better days to be an efficient and happy person at work.”

~ Work Design Magazine 

There are countless other business leadership lessons that history can teach us. Here are two in particular: 

What You Can Learn About Leadership from Alexander the Great

During his conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great had an interesting approach to planning battles. For example, the night before the Battle of Gaugamela, he gathered his generals in his tent. Alexander listened and asked occasional questions, speaking very little while they debated tactics and strategy. 

The debate went on for hours as they discussed how to battle against the army of King Darius. Not until after the debate ran its course did Alexander weigh in with his plan, which consisted of ideas from each of his generals, blended together with his own inspired contributions. Alexander was also careful to assign credit and praise to each general for his ideas, taking little credit for himself

The next day, Alexander led his cavalry from the front, inspiring his troops in executing the unorthodox battle plan. Despite being outnumbered 600,000 to 40,000, Alexander’s army crushed the Persians and forced King Darius to flee the battlefield in panic. 

Alexander demonstrates three powerful habits of great leaders that we can apply in business:

1 – He Listened 

He knew the valuable contributions his generals could make and carefully considered them, asking clarifying questions. This approach makes members of your team feel valued and that translates directly into better ideas and better morale.

2 – He Gave Credit & Praise to His Generals for their Contributions 

In business, there is little that destroys morale more than hogging credit. Give credit to individual team members, and the team as a whole, even when it might have been your idea or effort. This improves morale and encourages team members to be more forthcoming with ideas and efforts

3 – He Led From the Front 

Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington are just some of the great examples of leaders throughout history who led from the front. History rarely remembers generals who led from the safety of their command bunkers behind the front lines. In business, leaders who lead from the front inspire confidence and loyalty in their team.

During times when everyone has to pitch in to get a big project done, leaders pitch in by showing up first, leaving last and doing the hardest, most unpleasant tasks in the project. When business leaders demonstrate that they are willing to do any and every job in the business, it speaks volumes. 

What You Can Learn About Leadership From George Washington

In the brutal winter of Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War, George Washington knew that his rag-tag bunch of volunteers would never stand against the British without training and discipline. Recognizing his own weaknesses in that regard, Washington recruited Prussian Commander, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who began to drill the troops and quickly found that they were insubordinate and unwilling to follow his orders.

Realizing that Americans were very different from the European soldiers he was accustomed to training, he learned that the only way to get them to obey his commands was to explain to them why he was giving them an order, and how obedience to the order might save their lives.

Once Steuben began to provide rationale for his actions to the American soldiers, he was able to mold them into a formidable fighting force. Several months later, those same soldiers defeated the most powerful army on earth at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, a pivotal moment in the American revolution. 

In this historical account, we reaffirm one leadership principle and learn two more that apply in business:

1 – Washington Led From the Front 

General Washington led his troops from the front during the battle, putting himself in harm’s way continuously. 

2 – Washington Recognized his Own Weaknesses 

When a leader recognizes that he or she doesn’t have a particular aptitude, and relies on a specialist, it simultaneously demonstrates humility and confidence. That confidence inspires respect and loyalty in team members. 

3 – Von Steuben got his troops invested in the project by providing the rationale for what they were doing 

When a leader simply barks an order, it’s off putting and does little to inspire loyalty. But when a leader takes the time to provide rationale for his demands, it demonstrates that he or she cares about the team members they are working with. It gets the workers invested in the project and gives them the contextual framework to do a better job.


There are numerous illustrations of great leadership that we can glean from history. And what better way to learn than from the best leaders history has to offer? 

The examples above offer many ways for today’s leaders to inspire and motivate the people in their organizations, which, according to Forbes, is the number one competency that differentiates poor leaders from good ones and serves as a key predictor in high employee engagement. 

So take a cue from history—whether your hero is Augustus Ceasar, James Cash Penney, or Vince Lombardi—and closely examine the attributes that make historical figures so great. Then make room for those qualities to your own leadership toolbox.

**This article was submitted be our friends over at True Leaf Market.

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Parker is the co-founder and Marketing Director of True Leaf Market, a commercial seed supplier.