BLG Leadership Insights

4 Mistakes Made By History’s Biggest Leaders

History’s greatest leaders have one thing in common. They were able to get things done. But sometimes they didn’t always do the right things. Leaders have the ability to move projects ahead, but they sometimes don’t have the experience or the expertise to evaluate and support the right ideas. In fact, some of the history’s favorite leaders made some pretty big mistakes.

Here are four mistakes that good leaders made:

1. Winston Churchill Charges Into Costly Turkish Fight: In 1911 Churchill was responsible for making the British navy more lean, efficient, and war-ready. On November 25th 1914, Churchill asked the British War Council to spearhead a naval campaign into Turkey in order to move German troops and supplies away from the Eastern and Western fronts. Churchill felt that British navy should enter the heavily fortified and dangerously mined Dardanelles strait and make their way toward Constantinople. The War Council was uneasy about the idea and ranking British admirals wanted to take more time to plan out the attack, but Churchill was persistent. He pressured Admiral Carden, a seasoned captain in the region, to draw up an attack plan which he then submitted to the War Council.

Churchill took the War Council’s indirect, half-hearted, and ultimately confusing non-committal reply as a resounding ‘yes’ and quickly ordered Admiral Carden and his small fleet into the strait. While the first attack was successful Admiral Carden and his men weren’t ready for an unexpectedly organized Turkish force and the strait’s huge collection of floating mines. Eventually, Admiral Carden fell ill and General Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed to lead a 70,000 strong military force into the region. After numerous failed campaigns, General Hamilton and the British navy were pulled out of the Dardanelles region by the War Council. The Dardanelles skirmishes led to over 200,000 British allied casualties. The Turkish forces lost nearly as many men, but the numbers are undocumented.

After the campaign Churchill was booted from the Admiralty and fell into a depression.

2. Mahatma Gandhi Signs Away Indian’s Lives in WWI: Gandhi, famous for his pacifism, wasn’t always peace’s biggest advocate. When the British Empire asked him to recruit Indian solders for World War I, citing his work recruitment work in the Boer War, he quickly agreed. Gandhi thought that that his actions and India’s support would warm Britain to the idea giving India more political autonomy. He was mistaken.

India received little thanks for the million plus troops they committed to the war other than 13,000 medals of bravery.  Over 45,000 Indian troops died in World War I. Sadly, Gandhi failed to negotiate any gain, compromise, or promise from Britain for the roughly 45,000 Indians who died abroad in the British Empire’s name. Gandhi signed away a lot for zero political gain.

3. George Washington Muddles Into a War: As Washington’s biographer, Joseph Ellis, states, “Instead of going to college, Washington went to war.” In April 1754 the Virgina House of Burgesses gave Washington command of a 300-man regiment with the orders to protect Ohio country settlers from encroaching French troops.  When Washington finally made it to the region his Indian ally, Tanacharison (Half-King), informed him that there was a 1,000 plus French army nearby. Washington, facing a dire situation, decided to hunker down in the bed of a valley and build what was to become Fort Necessity.

On May 27th Tanacharison informed Washington that there was a 32-member French delegation nearby. Tanacharison and Washington surround the delegation and they met violently. Ten died and 22 were made prisoners. It marked the first bloodshed of the French and Indian War. While Washington claimed responsibility for the deaths, it is more likely that Tanacharison executed the French commander while Washington helplessly observed.

Tensions rose and Washington’s weak and poorly equipped Fort Necessity was now a prime target for the looming  French force. Washington tried to make allies with the surrounding Indian population, but failed. They knew that Washington was backing a lost cause. When Fort Necessity was eventually attacked Washington suffered serious losses. The low-laying fort was an easy target for raised firing and the bad weather conditions made the fort a muddy puddle. Washington lost 100 men and the French lost 5.  Washington was forced to surrender and he had to sign a treaty that said the British were responsible for the “assassination” of the French regiment’s commander. While Washington argued he didn’t know what the treaty said, there was little else he could have done.

Washington poorly played his relations with the French and built a very necessary fort in the worst place possible.

4. Andrew Carnegie Listens to Henry Frick: In the summer of 1892 Andrew Carnegie was enjoying some rest at his Scottish castle as steel prices were plummeting. In order to make up for the losses Carnegie decided that steel workers at the Homestead plant, managed by Henry Frick, needed to take wage cuts.  Further, Carnegie and Frick agreed that they needed break up one of the country’s strongest unions, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in order to bring up their bottom line.

Carnegie told Frick that he was allowed to shut the plant down until the workers swallowed the pay cuts. He further told Frick, through a letter, “We…approve of anything you do…We are with you to the end.” What Carnegie didn’t expect was the end would turn bloody.

Frick built a fence around the factory and hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a well-armed group of muscle, to control the 3,800 Homestead workers. The groups clashed in the middle of the night and 3 ‘detectives’ and 9 workers died. The state militia  had to be called in to establish a cease fire.

Carnegie mistakenly allowed Henry Frick, the same man who was partly responsible for the Johnstown flood, to lead negotiations in a very fraught atmosphere.

Even though all these leaders made large mistakes that ended in bloodshed, drama, and defeat–they still all managed to rally their abilities and accomplish great things later in their careers. Mistakes happen, but as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never, never give up.”

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The Myth of Failure Tolerance: Should Proactive Leaders Risk Failure in Tough Times?

We talked about making sacrifices and suffering recently–but what about failure? Depending on whom you talk to failure is either something that you should avoid or embrace.

Michael Jordan, in the video below (full disclosure: Nike Ad), says that failure helped him achieve success. In other words, he would not have accomplished anything if he, presumably, let the idea of failure cripple his skill. It’s an inspirational thought.

Failure is an uncomfortable notion. In our culture we have created a sense that effort should be taken into account before evaluating the magnitude of the failure. There is a sense that the more you take on, the more you challenge yourself, the more you experiment, the more you risk, the more you’ll be supported if you fail to achieve your goal.

In entrepreneurial workplaces, we often hear that value is placed on risk taking, that taking things to the cutting edge will be rewarded, even if success is not achieved.  While this may be an interesting notion, it does seem to me that there is less here than meets the eye.  It is one thing to talk about failure in times when resources are abundant.  It is quite another to talk about risk taking when resources are scarce.  Put in slightly academic terms, the more we approach a zero-sum game, the more we become nervous about risk, and less tolerant of failure.  When we approach a non-zero-sum game, that is when resources are abundant, we’re less nervous about risk and more tolerant of failure.

There is a certain irony to this because as resources become scarcer, leaders may push for retrenchment and risk aversion, taking risks becomes one way of moving ahead.  As had been said often lately, in today’s market, those that risk may in fact wind up on top when the economy again sparkles. But who exactly is willing to take risks when resources are scarce? Who will take risks when the downside is at hand? In truth, in our culture, we celebrate risk-taking but quietly are intolerant of failure and when things really get rough we’re intolerant of risk taking and failure.

The challenge for leaders is not whether they’ll risk and encourage others to risk in good times, but whether they’ll risk and encourage others to risk—and subsequently stand behind the failure—when times are bad. It’s one thing to risk when you are already playing for the NBA–it’s quite another to risk when your playing with a semi-pro team in northern Florida barely making a living and hoping to get another contract. Sure, if you don’t try to hit it out of the park you may never make it to the major leagues but if you go for the long ball and miss you may be left with no food on the table. So, it’s not that simple.

If there is ever a time for leaders to push innovation, to push entrepreneurship, to do it rigorously, cautiously, but with enthusiasm, it is when things seem the toughest. Proactive leaders who are entrepreneurial are now more necessary than ever before. Theoretically, if all is right with the world they and their organizations are the ones who will be rewarded when the economy reemerges. But, which one of them is willing to go for the long ball when they realize how close they are too stumbling into the minor leagues?