Who are the greatest leaders in world history? Is John F. Kennedy one? What about Winston Churchill? Can a great leader be one who presides over the most peaceful era? Or is it to do with conquest and colonisation? On the spectrum from the warmongering Genghis Khan to Mahatma Gandhi, where do we plot ‘greatness’?
Like any tale worth telling, greatness consists in overcoming adversity. The greatest leaders were those who wrestled with the greatest challenges.
John F. Kennedy
When JFK was elected, he was perceived as too ‘young and inexperienced’ for the presidency. He lived like a celebrity, his father was a millionaire, and he looked like he would be more at home in a Listerine commercial than in the Oval office.
It wasn’t until he was tested by the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, that he became credible as a leader. The Soviets had planted nuclear weapons on Cuban soil, 110 miles from the USA. There was the threat of bombs thousands of times larger than that dropped on Hiroshima being detonated.
Yet Kennedy remained calm, he told them to remove the weapons, and they did so. His steadfastness cemented his position as a ‘great’ leader.
People do not realise how integral Steve Jobs was to the success of Apple. The Apple II and Macintosh were two of the most profitable computers of the 1980s. Jobs was then fired from his own company by CEO John Sculley. If that had been the whole story, we would unlikely even remember Jobs today.
Following his departure, Apple launched some questionable devices, such as the Apple Newton (visually less appealing than a Fig Newton), and made ill-advised attempts to cash in on the internet (e-World, anyone?).
Jobs was brought back. Apple was in crisis. It was making quarterly losses, and it had given away the licenses to manufacture its own computer, the Macintosh.
Jobs remained calm and pressed the company to allow him to pursue his vision – unimpeded this time. They did so, which engendered an era of unprecedented creativity, with products such as the iMac, iPod, and iPhone following on from each other in effortless succession.
What about the rest?
Here is a list of some rather different examples: Stanley Baldwin, Herbert Hoover, King George III, Neville Chamberlain. What do these men have in common? They either faced no crisis, or they failed to respond to the crises they did have, and thus never became ‘great’ leaders.