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Out of the Box: Channeling Great Leaders

So what are you reading these days, business-wise that is? Sales and marketing managers have a great number of contemporary titles to choose from, many of which are solid and creative guides to the tactics of salesmanship, sales processes and marketing decision-making. Lately though, I've been thinking about how much can be learned from non-business books, writing that goes beyond business nuts and bolts to deliver a powerful influence on one's core values, attitudes and skills as a manager and leader. The category leader in that regard is the biography.

The "bio" net is pretty wide, stretching from the sublimity of Boswell's Johnson to the ridiculousness of Kitty Kelley's hatchet jobs. But focusing on the reading of history's great leaders—both men and women—provides a broad education in creative and unusual thinking, effective management styles and the power of personal strength and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable personal and leadership odds. It's not a coincidence that history is full of great leaders who devoured biographies of other great leaders—Napoleon Bonaparte read Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill read Napoleon and Tony Blair read Churchill. So what might you read?

Churchill: Courage, Organization & Conviction
A good first step is William Manchester's "The Last Lion," a two-volume set about Winston Churchill's life through 1940. Here's a warning though: any biography that you read after this may be found wanting, if only because Churchill's life was so incredibly outsized and Manchester's beautiful prose magnificently matches his subject. Revisionists can have their quibbles about Churchill, but he arguably remains THE indispensible figure of the 20th century with a Gumpian ability to have found himself exactly in the middle of his era’s key historical dramas.

As a leader, pay close attention to key traits that Churchill displayed throughout his life that can guide your own success: Personal courage in the face of physical and career danger, creativity to address intractable problems and resilience to survive multiple and fantastic failures.

In the fashion that Churchill stood before Parliament throughout the 1930s, arguing publically and to great ridicule that Germany was preparing for war, do you have the courage to fight for your convictions in and outside of your job arena, even to the point of personal loss? During what will obviously be a difficult business year, what never-been-tried methods can you develop to drive sales or discover new markets? If this year brings unimagined setbacks, can you somehow stay positive and forge ahead?

As a manager, study Churchill’s organizational skills (reports to him during the War had to be printed on one page), his hiring practices of "…live wires and not conventional types" and his communication skills that had even elderly Brits ready to fight with pitchforks and axes if that's what it would take to defeat an invading Nazi army.

The list of ways that Churchill that can guide us in life and business is long and includes his decision-making process, strategic vision, intellectual curiosity, herculean work ethic and handling of subordinates. But don't take my word for it. Read the books. And if you have any doubt, I challenge you to read just the first two pages of the preamble to the first book and then see if there is any way you can put it down. After you've read Manchester, pick up Steven Hayward's "Churchill on Leadership," which distills Churchill's lessons to a several evening read.

Hamilton: Integrity & Commitment
Because we live in an age when timeless ideas such as trust and honor seem to be crumbling before our eyes in institutions across the country, pick up a biography of Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow's 2004 work is a classic, but read instead Richard Brookhiser’s breezy "Alexander Hamilton, American," which, at about one-third the length, covers the scope of Hamilton's personal life and the fecundity of his career.

Hamilton is fascinating and important for a variety of reasons, but two of the most compelling include 1) his methodical, controversial and ultimately brilliant and successful pursuit of a strong, central American government, and 2) his commitment to his era's understanding of truth and honor.

Hamilton's vision of America was a grand one and it put him on a collision course with many of America’s most powerful leaders, most notably Thomas Jefferson. His creative and multi-faceted approach to building support for his ideas—including the Federalist Papers and speeches—are instructive to the sales and marketing executive determined to build a business. In a net-centric world, what are new ways to build awareness, support and buying actions for your products, services or ideas?

Relevant to today's environment is Hamilton's commitment to personal honor and responsibility, which lead of course to his death in the famous duel with Aaron Burr. The late 1700s had its share of scoundrels and Hamilton had his own personal issues, but it also was an age of intense personal integrity. Ultimately, to fix what's wrong with this country, it will take leaders such as yourself that are willing to make those same honorable choices in their business lives as people like Hamilton did in his day (hopefully without the need of any duels).

Nightingale: Risks & Reform
Finally, I'm fascinated by Florence Nightingale, because without her the field of medicine, even the arc of women's rights would have been significantly altered. Hers is a story of dynamic and determined leadership coupled with paradigm-smashing ideas about medicine and women's roles in the Victorian Era. Nightingale was willing to risk her life and came close to death pursuing her battlefield medical reforms. How passionate are you about your job? Your people? Your personal vision? The definitive Nightingale bio is by Mark Bostridge. Having read a number of articles and short stories about her, I want to know more, so Bostridge’s book is on my desk.

Also sitting in my reading queue are bios of John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR; none of whom were business people, but all of whom I'm betting can teach us something of lasting value. Let me know what you're reading and what you've learned that has helped you become a better leader, a more effective manager, or maybe just inspired you to make the tough, right decision when the wrong one might have been a lot easier.

S&MM columnist David Chittock, president of Incentra, focuses on helping leaders achieve their business goals by "increasing the value of the people vital to success" through integrated incentive and recognition solutions. He manages a diverse business that offers strategy creation, Web performance platforms, print and electronic communications, administration, training, program analysis and rewards fulfillment around the globe. He can be reached at dchittock@incentra1.com.