Wondering Out Loud

How do you define leadership

I opened iTunes the other day and came across two of my favorite audio clips: the Crispin Day’s speech from Henry the V by Kenneth Branagh and Kurt Russell, as Herb Brooks in Miracle, giving his pregame talk to the team before the 1980 Olympic game against the Soviet Union.

Individually each is a great example of oratory skill, but together they illustrate the difficulty of defining leadership and what makes a great leader.

I’ll tell you straight out that I can’t define it – and I defy anyone to define to do so – but I do recognize it when I see it. 

Leaders are defined as much by their styles as by the results of their work. The late great Herb Brooks built a gold medal-winning Olympic hockey team by giving his players a common enemy to hate, not the Soviet Union. Brooks took a bunch of kids, primarily from the Midwest and East, who came to the rink with built-in hatred for each other and brought them together by turning himself into the target of their anger. In time the regional divides came down and settling old scores didn’t matter any more. Brooks’ model of “hate me not each other” lead to the Miracle On Ice.

Brooks was famous for playing mind-games and hurling insults during the 18 months leading up to the game, the pep talk before the miracle game showed the confidence he had in the team. Gone was the talk of “playing worse and worse every day and now you’re playing like it’s next month.” He replaced it with the message that each and every member of that team deserved to be on the ice with the Soviets. Not only did they deserve it, they were born to be there. It was a real, and unexpected, turn around from what  the players had grown accustomed to.

Contrast that with the clip from Henry the V. In it King Henry is rallying his troups to do battle with the French. The French are better armed, better fed, better rested and have far greater numbers, but Henry in undaunted. In response to his cousins who wishes for more men Henry says it is they, those not there, who will come to regret they did not join.

And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.

It is a call to arms, but more than that, it is a call to brotherhood:

For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

But Henry, in saying “shall be my brother”, tells his men that they are part of his family. The royal family.

It’s an amazing contrast. Herb consciously working to make his players hate him and Henry embracing his men,calling them brothers. Henry and Herb had dramatically different styles of leadership, but both were successful in a battle they had no business winning.

So how do you define leadership? I don’t know, but I know one when I see one.

July 17, 2009 Posted by | Leadership | , , , , , | Leave a comment


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