Accuracy in Media

From George Washington to George W. Bush, British historian Paul Johnson used the lives of political figures to teach lessons of leadership in a recent speech during a Hillsdale College cruise.

The keys to good leadership, according to Johnson, include familiar words and phrases such as self-restraint, communication, willpower and magnanimity. They do not, however, always come across in the typical fashion, as Johnson explained. George Washington, for example, was able to show self-restraint simply by the way he dressed.

“Washington might wear a uniform when the Republic was in danger, to indicate his willingness and ability to defend it. As a rule, however, he deliberately stressed his civilian status by his dress. He was anxious to show that, unlike Cromwell 150 years before, he would not use his military victories to become a Caesar,” Johnson stated.

Likewise, leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were able to communicate with clarity and purpose, but frequently did so using irony and humor.

“[Lincoln] often achieved an effect with jokes where mere oratory would not work so well,” said Johnson. “And Mr. Reagan communicated and ruled through his enormous collection of one-liners.”

Johnson also used his list of heroic virtues to address the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq in stressing that clarity of aim is paramount for leaders in war.

“I have no doubt that when George Bush the younger authorized the second war against Iraq, he had in mind to complete the business left unfinished by the first,” Johnson said. “But the actual reasons given for the second war were quite different, and much less plausible.”

Along with clarity of purpose, Johnson emphasized the need for statesmen at war to understand the necessary boundaries between civilian and military decision-making, and gave tragic examples of leaders who did not follow this rule.

“The Suez War was a historic demonstration of how fatal to success it is to muddle politics and military operations together,” Johnson said. “[Anthony Eden] tried to fight a kind of limited and political war, with the generals and air marshals restrained by political factors in what weapons they could use. He even told the Royal Air Force not to use bombs above a certain weight.”

The historian, who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was able to support his knowledge of heroic personalities of modern leaders with anecdotes of actually meeting many of them. He told a story of meeting Winston Churchill in 1946, and asking the Prime Minister about his source of success. The Prime Minister responded by stating that success comes from conservation of effort, ironically since he worked tirelessly to bring victory during the Second World War.

What made Johnson’s speech unique was that he spoke of figures such as Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher not just as leaders, but as modern-day heroes. Interestingly enough, his speech on heroes mostly included conservative figures while leaving out more liberal heads of state. Still, Johnson concluded in saying that the greatest lessons in heroism are not learned by studying leaders of the past, but rather from listening to our parents during childhood.

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