For some time now, I have become a fan of historical fiction. Not the fantasy kind, but biographies and such. For me they are more interesting than suspense, more fascinating than fantasy and more educational than the modern management books.
One such biography I read recently was of Peter, the Great who is considered the founder of modern Russia, the father of Russian Navy and a maverick to boot.
An absolute authority, cruel to the hilt he was the Czar of Russia who plunged his motherland into wars throughout his life. But the Russia which emerged out of chaos was one which could hold its own among the world powers and catapult itself to true greatness.
Peter had a shaky start. Born as a heir to the powerful throne of Russia, he was upstaged by his sister and her husband. By his personal charm, strength of will and support of the Palace Guards, Peter squashed this attempt to dethrone him and confined his sister to a nunnery for the rest of her life. Peter’s cruelty was not meaningless sadism, it was more a solidity of purpose which would not deter him from having his own son’s back torn out by leather whips when rebellion was suspected.
Peter is considered great not just because he won many wars and was a great general. Recognizing that his army was better led by experienced generals, Peter was content to let his trusted lieutenants lead the army while he set the overall goals. No, winning wars doesn’t earn you the label “Great”. Let us examine what Peter did to earn this label.
Even when Peter was a kid, the spirit of the sea infected his soul. He loved sailing and quickly developed interest in sea going vessels. He also created a kids’ army which actually proved to be instrumental later on in squashing his sister’s attempt to usurp his throne.
Peter never let his passion die. His love of sea and sea going vessels led him to learn how to make ships. He was more proud of his skills as a ships’ carpenter, as a captain and as an admiral than as a Czar of Russia. In the victorious army parades, Peter always rode behind his general, bearing the uniform of the Navy office to which had been promoted. Peter was proud of what he learned and did with his hands, not of the title he was born with. He visited distant countries to learn himself the art of ship making as a commoner in disguise and brought back ship makers to Russia who could teach his countrymen to build a first class navy.
A modern day manager could take a leaf out of Peter’s book. You must strive to excel at your job just as the rest of your team. It’s too easy to tell people what to do. Are you capable of rolling up your sleeves and showing them what to do?
Peter was one of the rare monarchs – possibly the only one – of his time who went on a world tour to get first hand information about what’s happening everywhere. He traveled throughout the known world – the kingdoms of Europe – and met with the kings and queens of every country. In each country – Britain, France and all others – he requested permission to be allowed to mix with the common folks in disguise. He gauges first hand their strengths, skills, fears and ambitions. This wide experience helped Peter to have a vision based on real world, practical knowledge.
A visionary leader today cannot live in the ivory tower basing his strategies on the reports of his subordinates or analysts. He has to spend time with the ground level folks. Listen to their everyday stories, empathize with their concerns and inspire them with knowledge and passion.
Finally, Peter was ruthless in pursuing his vision. He was ruthless not only with the men he commanded but also with himself. Unlike the Caliphs who lived in Turkey and sent their army to conquer in their name, Peter camped with his men. He introduced measures for modernizing the army such as no beard for men. He would take a knife and shave off anyone who did not visit the barber.
Singularity of purpose and the ability to sustain your passion throughout good times and bad, a belief in your vision regardless of what people tell you will mark you out as a leader.
People in history who have earned the label “Great” have done so by having a passion and creativity. But they also had an infinite capacity for hard work and personal sacrifice. Their actions did not always immediately benefit people. But they changed the course of history for sure.
You can do it
Write down one biography you have read of a historical character which was interesting and also educational from today’s perspective. Tell us about some books you like. Who is your favorite historical fiction author?