Management Articles


Management Lessons from History

By: Robert H. Kent, Ph.D., CMC

President of The Mansis Development Corporation, Dr. Kent is a specialist in the structure and management of small and medium-sized organizations, and frequently serves as a personal coach and management consultant to executives for solving their management and employee performance problems. Before founding his consulting company, Bob held senior management and executive positions in federal and provincial government and private corporations. He has been a director of several health care and service organizations and a consulting member of private and government task forces in the areas of government finance, organization structure, personnel management and executive development. Since 1972 he has lectured in management at several Canadian and American universities in the faculties of Management, Administrative Studies, Medicine and Continuing Education where he has been an award winner for excellence in teaching and professional expertise; and he has published over 125 books and articles on management.

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For a change of pace this summer I tackled the 1000+ page tome, "Churchill: A Life" by Martin Gilbert. Sir Winston has always been a personal hero and this new volume supplies fascinating detail about his incredible life. Churchill was the model leader and super achiever - the greatest English statesman of the century. Although his personal strengths offer guidelines for any leader, his few failings yield some fruitful lessons for management.

Consider some of his strengths. Churchill never gave up! He believed in himself and in his view of the world and like the tenacious bulldog he resembled, he stuck to his ideals right to the end. And excluding his oratory showmanship, he depersonalized the criticism between himself and his political colleagues and opponents. His feet were planted in reality.

Proactive, never at rest, he created his own luck and circumstance. This sense of urgency coloured his whole life and fueled the "gentle relentless pressure" he used to initiate a surprising amount of social change. Of course he was the master of using symbolism: verbal, written and visual. He led with every faculty he could muster.

But it's this man's failings where we could learn a management lesson of caution. A man of his times and his profession, Churchill practised Cabinet loyalty to a fault. Many times, as his government's best communicator, he was pressed to defend publicly the policies and government actions he passionately fought against within the solidarity of the Cabinet. In the short run this "common front" was politically expedient for the government. However, for Churchill, the undeserving association with government decisions he believed were wrong hurt his long term credibility and his effectiveness when his opinions and wisdom were critically needed.

Throughout this biography, you see disheartening examples of ineptitude and self-serving stubbornness within the British cabinet and other groups of military and political strategists. Too often Churchill's loyalty to the party or to "the system" led him to defer to the collective wisdom of the group, despite history repeatedly proving him right and them wrong. The results, one could argue, cost millions of lives.

A lesson for business or political leaders, and also for the spectators -- employees and citizenry -- is to be cautious when you give power to a group, and in particular when you solicit ideas from or delegate decision power to groups of employees or advisors.

Decades ago researcher Irving Janis wrote about "Group Think", the phenomenon where working groups perceive themselves invulnerable. They collectively reinforce their own ignorance. But Churchill's life also shows that where activity, risk taking and the need for implementing change are the issues, groups may protect the status quo and abhor any risk. This is especially true when membership in the group is the ultimate reward and measure of success, as opposed to the long-term quality of the decisions the group makes.

© Copyright 2001 The Mansis Development Corporation

Other Articles by Robert H. Kent, Ph.D., CMC

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