Leadership Lessons From John Elway, Winston Churchill, & Charles Manson


We all know that Winston Churchill was a great leader. His strength and optimism saved England and possibly all of Europe.

What you may not know is that as soon as the war ended he was fired (voted out of office) because he couldn’t get along in an environment that required deft political maneuvering. He could lead a nation, but not when it required consensus building.

That makes me think that while soft-skills are handy for a leader to have, they aren’t absolutely mandatory.

There’s a place for the carrot – and the stick

It’s only when things are bad that a leader shows himself. If I get my coworkers to volunteer on a hot Saturday morning to mow the warehouse lawn, that’s leadership. If I get everyone to the lake for waterskiing, it isn’t really leading — it’s organizing.

You lead when you get others to follow your plan for something they wouldn’t otherwise do, want to do, or think to do. The Grand Marshall isn’t leading the parade; he’s just the guy at the front.

Not all were on board with his war plan at first, so Churchill (and Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, for instance) had to make some heads roll. We’ve long known that executing a few generals will encourage the rest. There’s a place for carrot, but without a stick behind it, the dangling treat will only get someone over the first small hill when you’re setting out to cross the Alps.

To lead, one needs the authority and willingness to get rid of those who don’t support you. It shouldn’t be an everyday show of force, but every follower has to know that he risks losing his job if he doesn’t play ball.

Speaking of ball, John Elway was a leader of Denver Broncos because he had the power to have players benched. Or, he could just not throw them the ball. Exclusion from a group can be a scary stick too.

Manipulation is leadership, too

The exceptions to the lead-by-fear model are those who lead by manipulating. It seems odd to think of Charles Manson as a leader, but he was. He got his followers to commit horrible crimes through the art of persuasion – but there’s no doubt that he was a leader.

John Boehner is another one who can’t fire or execute his people since they’re all elected. So if the Speaker of the House wants support, he has to manipulate and coerce his peers. Cross him and you’ll be on the “Committee for the Review of Offal Storage Sites” faster than you can get your bib on.

A Chair of a Board who wants support for her new plan manipulates, too. Knowing opponents will waste the meeting time with arguments, she meets her opposition beforehand to answer their questions, and then she frames her ideas to get the most support the quickest. She is a leader — and a manipulator.

But she’s effective, and that’s what leaders are.

Managers get people to perform their tasks well but don’t convince them to go somewhere new. Leadership is about getting people to willingly follow you along a new and scary path. No matter how you do that, if you want lead a group long-term, there must be some sort of stick behind the carrots and sweet talk.

Don’t forget to sharpen your teeth.