‘Strategy and Leadership in History’. Interview with Andrea Lipparini

14 September 2022

Andrea Lipparini, Ph.D., is a Professor of Innovation Management at the University of Bologna and Associate Dean for the Executive MBAs programs at BBS, where he directs the Executive Master in Business Administration. On the occasion of the release of the book ‘Strategy and Leadership in History. Lessons for managers” published by Il Mulino, of which he is the author with Gianfranco Di Pietro; we asked him to tell us what good leadership is and where it comes from today as yesterday. Here is what he answered us.  

Is one born a leader, or does one become one? How much do study and application influence the development and growth of leadership? 

Although some are born with the charisma and gifts needed to lead others, most leaders have learned to be leaders basically through three ‘ingredients’:  motivation, commitment to constantly improve one’s skills, and exposure to situations that allow implementing one’s leadership style. In this volume, we show how three great historical leaders (Hannibal, Caesar, and Napoleon) developed their leadership skills by observing the practices of those who had gone before them and those they would face. Leadership is marked in action, and it is through action that it is revealed.  

In which roles or business contexts is it indispensable to have followed a specific path to be able to exercise sound leadership? What do the great historical leaders teach us about this?

Past and contemporary leaders have very different backgrounds and are characterized by a plurality of paths. 

Hannibal, at the age of nine, followed his father, the great general Hamilcar, to Spain – where the Carthaginians controlled large areas. He grew up in contact with soldiers, developing the warrior skills and expertise that would legitimize him as a leader among his men. Hannibal faced the challenge of measuring himself against the most significant military, economic, and cultural power of the ancient world: Rome. He appealed to a different, great cultural heritage, the Greek one, and invented something entirely new: strategy, which changed almost every battle. Then he refined a formidable tool, his army of mercenaries, and brought Rome to its knees. He masterfully exercised the role of leader by leading thousands of men to accomplish unimaginable feats in numerical inferiority and hostile territory.  

Caesar demonstrated the same, antagonizing the aristocracy (to which he belonged) and advocating the need for change. Before Gaul’s conquest, he showed oratorical and interpersonal skills, but with that great enterprise, he perfected leadership and tested the loyalty of the legions. He practiced speed in decision-making and action, the wise use of information, and executed works considered engineering masterpieces. He selected, trained, and motivated his soldiers, leading by example. Julius Caesar built a very ambitious challenge for himself, starting from a condition familiar to many young Romans of his time: to gain unparalleled economic wealth and political power. The Gallic campaign is an extraordinary example of competence built on continuous trial and error, with great self-confidence (up to then, he had proven himself to be a commander of cohorts but not of legions) and without being able to rely upon, unlike Hannibal, on his father’s example.  

Napoleon used an irreproducible historical condition, the French Revolution, to launch an unprecedented challenge to the entire world of the Old Regime. He has solid technical skills (an artillery expert) and fights like many of his models (Hannibal and Caesar among them!). He is swift, deadly, and has a keen eye that allows him to interpret the opposing army’s disposition and his generals’ tactics to perfection. He was a careful manager with excellent skills in exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses. His leadership, which probably reached its zenith at Austerlitz, did not prevent him from committing glaring errors of underestimating his adversary, overestimating his capabilities, and choosing team members in the decisive battle. 

In essence, the protagonists of this volume were, at the same time, skilled in management and leadership; they possessed strategic, executive, and organizational skills and these systems of action were complementary to each other. Leadership can become fragile when it becomes stubborn leadership, aimed at not changing patterns of thinking, set-ups, and tactics that once worked. The real challenge is to combine strong management and strong leadership and use each to balance the other.

How do you apply historical lessons to the corporate world? 

Similar to management skills, leadership skills can also be learned. History provides a basis for comparison of the reasons for successes, the causes for defeats, and the mistakes made. The situations are similar and appropriately contextualized, leading to reflection on how to make the best use of the skills of a large number of people (think of Hannibal’s and Caesar’s multi-ethnic armies, for example); how to deploy innovative schemes and practices that surprise the competitors (e.g., Hannibal’s enveloping maneuver, Caesar’s celeritas, Napoleon’s central attack strategy), how to find and utilize information before an undertaking in unfamiliar contexts (e.g., the second Punic war on Italic soil or the conquest of Gaul); how to solve problems quickly; how to communicate an idea, a vision, a strategic objective by getting people to commit themselves to the maximum of their abilities.  

If a manager feels the need to deepen the strategic dimension of their business, they can learn from a few, as from Hannibal and Scipio. Suppose a manager feels the need to deepen the factors necessary for a company that, with scarce resources, must measure itself against a mighty enemy playing at home. In that case, there is no better reading than the De Bello Gallico, a work written by Caesar that persuasively presents the importance of execution, technological superiority, celeritas, leadership and motivation of men, and innovation.  

By comparing with past best practices and analyzing the mistakes of great leaders, companies can gain awareness of the suitability of their initiatives to face unfamiliar competitors in distant markets; of the repertoire of information in their possession; of the system of alliances that will support execution; of the procurement of resources on the spot; and the financing of the initiative, especially for strategies destined to produce results after a long time (Caesar’s mission in Gaul lasted eight years; Hannibal’s in Italy more than twice as long).  

History, for the manager exposed to the experience of those who preceded him, can become a natural resource: it enriches problems with meaning, broadens perspective, and sometimes points the way to managerial levers that could help solve them.  

The message to the manager is clear: great victories can be followed by bitter defeats if one rests on past successes if one denies the possibility that the adversary knows how to surpass oneself. The resources and skills of yesteryear can become obsolete if the competitor is determined. History can teach that it may be wrong to stop and give up, but overconfidence is equally inappropriate. The analysis of defeats and mistakes leads the manager to reflect on the nature of those failures, the reversals, and the signals that anticipate the uprising of our collaborators linked to the inability to listen to their needs. The mistakes of yesteryear, if analyzed and understood, lead to reflection on one’s own, helping to overturn a corporate culture that exploits error not to learn but to punish. 

Can you name three characteristics of a good leader? What could be the quintessential characteristic of the ideal leader? 

First, we need to understand what a leader does as opposed to a manager. Managers have to deal with and manage complexity (as did the three protagonists in this book) through planning and budgeting: typically, the manager defines the objectives, the plan to achieve them, and the allocation of resources; he also creates the organizational structure and assigns tasks to human resources he deems qualified; he communicates the plan, delegates responsibilities (not always, if we remember Napoleon), and puts in place systems to monitor the progress of the program. The manager’s skills include detailed monitoring of results and problem-solving: a project management manual could be written on the skills of Caesar’s legionnaires. 

Leaders, on the other hand, have to deal with change. They have the task of developing a vision of the future and the strategies that enable the company to align with this vision. Leadership has to do with vision and strategy. The leader does not organize people; they align them, communicating the development trajectories to the managers who will have to create the coalitions for change and motivate and inspire so that people can navigate the transition. 

What is expected of a leader also defines ideal leadership. The paradigm we present and discuss in this volume regards failure as inevitable. The protagonists of this volume also failed: Hannibal failed to move from a military to a political program; Caesar, virtually undefeated in the field, also suffered the disruptive force of the complexity of a changing political framework; Napoleon was defeated not only by his adversaries but also by his own mistakes. The best leader is the one who, aware of his fallibility, seeks to compensate for it by an equally conscious implementation of actions to correct errors. Leaders must then be inclusive, i.e., work for the valorization of diversity and strive to make a meritocratic system a reality. It requires an open mindset, listening, and caring for initiatives to make collaboration effective. They are leaders who are willing to delegate, value diversity of thought, and increase team cohesion as well as the psychological security of the participants. They are leaders who promote the transformation of followers through involvement in the leader’s self-realization process. 

Ultimately, ideal leaders – men and women – accompany followers to become leaders.


Read Alec Ross’s review of the book here.

Visit the publisher’s website here.


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