History as a model for leadership training

Andrea Lipparini, Gianfranco Di Pietro October 6, 2023 5 min read

In the essay Strategy and Leadership in History. Lessons for Managers we present a training model that, through the analysis of the exploits of great leaders of the past, integrates historical narrative within the competence development practices of modern organizations. 

In this essay, we analyze leadership styles through the study of three significant figures: Hannibal, Caesar, and Napoleon. Retracing their experiences, we examine how these figures acquired and developed their skills and demonstrated their extraordinary talents. Hannibal is famous for his strategic prowess brought to bear in the many battles against Rome, the greatest military, economic, and cultural power of the time. The Punic leader was able to develop a flexible strategy and proved capable of changing tactics with each battle, also leveraging the unstoppable strength of his mercenaries. 

Caesar enhanced his own talents, such as oratorical and interpersonal skills. The conquest of Gaul allowed him to hone his leadership competences and tested the loyalty of his legions. He was a leader who could make decisions and act very quickly (his celeritas is famous), retrieve information and utilize it to the best of his ability, and initiate outstanding engineering works. 

Napoleon masterfully exploited the unique historical circumstances of the French Revolution to launch an unprecedented challenge to the Ancien Régime. With a solid technical background, his charisma, and his commanding style, Napoleon took his leadership to the highest level. Contemporary leaders can learn so much from the great successes of the Corsican ruler, such as the Battle of Austerlitz, but also from great defeats, such as the Battle of Waterloo. The message is clear: never underestimate the enemy, never overestimate yourself, relentlessly investigate the factors of competition and the terrain of confrontation. 

The great leaders of the past not only demonstrate how leadership skills can be learned and developed, but also how they can be applied in various contexts. Whether it involves enhancing the skills of a large number of people, even very different people, such as the multi-ethnic armies of Hannibal and Caesar, or implementing innovative schemes and practices that surprise competitors, such as Hannibal’s enveloping maneuver, Caesar’s speed, or Napoleon’s central attack strategy, these are valuable lessons for contemporary leaders. 

For example, if a manager wants to delve deeper into the strategic dimension of their work, they can learn a great deal from not only Hannibal, but also from Scipio, the Roman general who defeated him; reading Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, on the other hand, can provide useful elements for proper resource management, improving decision-making speed and understanding the importance of motivation and innovation. 

Beyond the individual figures, this publication also highlights the challenges of balancing leadership and management skills, two complementary aspects of a single system. When these skills balance each other, the results can be extraordinary. Conversely, a dogged leadership that refuses to change patterns of thinking and tactics that have worked in the past can become fragile. 

Hence, strong management and strong leadership become the winning weapons for a successful path within the organization. In this sense, it is useful to explore further the distinction between managers and leaders by examining their respective competencies. 

Managers deal with complexity through planning and budgeting. They set goals, develop plans to achieve them, and allocate the necessary resources. They create the organizational structure and assign tasks to qualified people and then monitor the progress of the plan and solve problems as they arise. 

Unlike managers, leaders must work on change. To do so, they must be able to offer a higher level of empowerment to people, aligning them with their vision and motivating them so that they can actively contribute to the project and adapt quickly to the needs determined by the context. This, concretely, means providing spaces and opportunities to exercise qualities such as problem-solving, spirit of adaptation and team building. But also knowing how to enhance individuals and create a safe and inclusive environment that encourages the active participation of each talent. All of this, if it is working, should give rise to new leaders. Which brings us to state that ideal leaders are those who not only lead, but encourage their followers to become leaders in turn, engaging them in a process of self-realization, stimulating creativity and providing adequate and constant support. 

In conclusion, strategic and transformational leadership requires a combination of organizational, communication, and change management skills-all of which were not lacking in the leaders of the past analyzed in this study. 

This article is based on
Strategia e leadership nella storia. Lezioni per i manager
Il Mulino
Andrea Lipparini, Gianfranco Di Pietro