Weekly Blog #15 - Leadership in 1937 and today (Part I)

Updated: May 6

This week's blog is going to be split in 2 parts because it's a little bit more content than usual and it might be a bit much to digest at once. I also once promised that I wouldn't utilize more that 5-6 minutes of your time per week.

A few days ago I picked up a book called "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. The book was originally published in 1937. To this day, it is still one of the most read books on personal development and self-improvement but also on how to create personal and financial success. And while writing this article the book ranks #20 on Amazons weekly list of most sold paperbacks...


On 238 pages the author describes in a very colorful and inspired way how he studied human behavior of more or less successful people in his era such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, Charles M. Schwab and others. In the beginning of the book he puts a lot of emphasis into explaining why a burning desire towards a definite goal and faith in yourself paired with tools such as auto-suggestion - in short: telling yourself everyday that you will achieve a certain goal - will lead to a more successful life. He encourages the reader to look out for opportunities in a period shaken by the great depression of the late 20s and 30s and even gives advice on how to apply for jobs by describing in detail how to create a good letter of application.


It feels a bit like reading a history book without any concrete connection and meaning to my life in 2020. But why is the book still so successful? Well, if anything, the book makes you think about what has changed over the past 80 years in regards to topics such as self-improvement and -motivation, dealing with your strengths and weaknesses, the impact of determination and persistence, etc.. And that's basically what makes me keep reading it.


I stumbled over a specific chapter that I want to dive into a bit more deeply: Chapter 6 "Imagination". Within this chapter the author describes - among other things - "The 11 Major Attributes of Leadership". Reflecting on these 11 attributes made me think how we are living up to standards defined over 80 years ago on the topic of leadership in this day and age. Most of the described attributes I still find very accurate but also greatly underrated and in some parts not adhered to by the majority of leaders I have met.


Here are the first six attributes a good leader should have according the Napoleon Hill and my ideas and reflections on them:


1. UNWAVERING COURAGE based upon knowledge of self, and of one’s occupation. No follower wishes to be dominated by a leader who lacks self-confidence and courage. No intelligent follower will be dominated by such a leader very long.

The author determines that there are two types of people in the world: leaders and followers. Suggesting that there are "natural attributes" that define who can be a leader and who can't, he states that "not everyone can be a leader". But in the author's opinion there is no shame in being a follower. No leader can be strong in his position without intelligent, motivated and loyal followers supporting him. However, if a leader can't develop the courage of making decisions and standing up for his goals and lacks the self-confidence to push through in spite of strong opposition, even the most faithful followers will probably turn their backs on him.


Apart from some overhauled views on who can be a leader and who can't, in my opinion this statement is true to this day. Hidden in this first attribute is the message that a good leader needs to be aware of his own abilities and his team's skills to be able to build courage. He needs to know what they can and can't do and how they want to achieve it. Courage is the result of believing in yourself and your team's skills and knowing what you're doing, and in my opinion most of the other attributes described later lead up to and support this first attribute.


2. SELF-CONTROL - The man who cannot control himself, can never control others. Self-control sets a mighty example for one’s followers, which the more intelligent will emulate.

One of the most important attributes of a good leader is self-control - back then and today. The moment a leader - no matter how good or bad he has been leading in the past and how many of the other attributes he possesses - loses his self-control, e.g. by bursting out in an uncontrolled rage, being unreasonably harsh, offensive or suggestive towards one of his colleagues or drinking too much at a party, is the moment something in the way he is perceived as a leader changes. I've experienced this a couple of times and each time it shifted my perspective on the person that was supposed to lead - and in most cases unfortunately not in a good way.


3. A KEEN SENSE OF JUSTICE - Without a sense of fairness and justice, no leader can command and retain the respect of his followers.

One of my previous articles dealt with how to maintain a fair and consistent way of giving feedback, judging and dealing with colleagues and other people who work for you. Being fair with a keen sense of justice is obviously still very much required in this day and age.


Here's a little personal insight on how I've been taught that justice is one of the most important attributes of good leadership: my father - who was a strong leader with a tendency of being quite harsh on his people - was responsible for many employees throughout his career. He often told me stories about how he handled situations at work that required him to make judgements, hire and even fire people from their jobs. Above all he put one thing first: fair judgement. In failure and success. He always tried to be as factual as possible and used numbers and results to justify his judgements. He tried to never humiliate anyone in front of others, he tried to never raise his voice because "if you want to bring a message across, it's not the volume that determines the level of comprehension one's message receives". These messages left a strong impression on how I would deal with others in general and with my teams during the projects I had been responsible for - and, for my father's sake, I hope I did well...


4. DEFINITENESS OF DECISION - The man who wavers in his decisions, shows that he is not sure of himself. He cannot lead others successfully.

There's not much to add to the fact that a good leader has to not only make decisions but also avow for them in the face of adversity. However, I have learned that one should never make decisions on his own in a field where he has a track record of being wrong. This requires to be open-minded and to acquire the best possible level of information from people smarter than oneself in the specific field and with the required expertise before making a definite decision.


5. DEFINITENESS OF PLANS - The successful leader must plan his work, and work his plan. A leader who moves by guesswork, without practical, definite plans, is comparable to a ship without a rudder. Sooner or later he will land on the rocks.

My own experience with not having proper plans in my early stages of being responsible for my first projects and work streams showed me how important this attribute is to this day. Not having a plan used to make me extremely nervous. And if the leader gets nervous people around him get nervous as well. Let me tell you: dealing with nervous clients and nervous senior leadership during projects is the worst that can happen. You need to be in control and figure out what you need to do to achieve a specific goal. From my experience there can be no such thing as success - except through sheer luck - without thorough and sound planning and the courage and definiteness to stick to one's plan.


6. THE HABIT OF DOING MORE THAN PAID FOR - One of the penalties of leadership is the necessity of willingness, upon the part of the leader, to do more than he requires of his followers.

"Don't become an insecure overachiever" - this was one of the first lessons I got taught working with other, more experienced leaders. This attribute however tells you to do more that you're being paid for. I was wondering if this still applies for our time. Another thing I've picked up (it's actually a quote from a TV series) is this: "You're good, get better, stop asking for things."


I do believe that it's important to constantly show what you are capable of and if you have the motivation to do so you will probably also constantly have the feeling that you are worth more than you are being paid. But I also ask myself this: how can I be happy on the long run with what I am doing if all I am aiming for is to work my ass off to earn more? I should be working hard and doing more because it's fun and because my work is meaningful to me. So I started putting first things first: I want to have fun and love what I'm doing - and if I'm doing a good job, people will start compensating me accordingly. This - in one way or the other - worked much better for than the constant struggle to grind hard and walk into my bosses office every once in a while to bargain for that 10% raise...


The second part of the attribute also makes me think... "[...] to do more than he requires of his followers."- in our day and age I believe plainly requiring a leader to do "more" is not accurate enough and leads to the misconception that one has to work longer and harder than anybody else to show that he is a true leader. In my opinion a good leader has learned to delegate task that would otherwise keep him from doing other, potentially more important things. If there's a hierarchy in organizations, there is also a hierarchy in tasks that comes with the more or less natural spread of responsibility and accountability within an organization. So doing "more" in my opinion means doing things that require more accountability towards a client or customer, to control potentially more complicated overarching processes that bring together all the little bits and pieces of a production process, etc..

In the second part I will share my thoughts on the remaining five attributes. These include personality, sympathy and understanding, mastery of detail, responsibility and cooperation.


Please let me know if you would like me to reflect on and write about these kind of topics more in the future and please also share this with your friends and colleagues (and leaders for that matter...).

If you are interested in the book, here's a link to the paperback version on Amazon (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/38d0c61)


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