Tolstoy on the Common Instinct of Leaders

File:Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) - Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887).jpg

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on Leo Tolstoy‘s assessment of Napoleon:

“And the genius Napoleon was defeated and taken to the island of St Helena, having suddenly been discovered to be an outlaw. Whereupon the exile, parted from his dear ones and his beloved France, died a slow death on a rock, and bequeathed his great deeds to posterity. As for Europe, a reaction occurred there, and all the princes began to treat their peoples badly once again”  ~ War and Peace

Why do I share this quote?

Because in his brilliant and sardonic way, Tolstoy shows us the common instinct of leaders.

They come on the scene full of self-importance, brimming with the ambition to do something great. In their hour or two on stage, they do a little of this and a little of that. In the end, they rearrange the furniture and then sleep with their fathers. But then somebody else comes along and moves the furniture back to a different spot in the room.

And with that, every thing changes.

So, why do we remember them? It’s because that’s what happened. They were the show. Across the sweep of history, it’s pretty much B movies across the “leadership landscape.” It’s yet another rerun of untrammeled greed,unbridled ambition, and unspectacular motive that is projected upon the large popular silver screen of domestic life that we in Corporate-World call “Leadership.”

There are some unscripted moments when great leaders appear, but they are rare.

Most do their little, nihilistic gig and then die an ignominious death. Is that not the message in Tolstoy’s parody? Is he not sneering at the petty contributions of so many we exalt as great leaders, but who are only slaves to small plans?

So how are you doing in your life’s journey? Are you on target with greater or lesser plans in life’s greater schemes? Are you living a leader’s life of fantasy based on etherial things and selfish flights of fancy? Or are you grounded in your outlook on leading others  well and living unselfishly? Do you have an objective, or subjective look at life, leadership, and advancement of things greater than yourself? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Timothy R. Clark
, Ph.D., is president of management consulting firm, TRCLARK. He just released a new book entitled, The Leadership Test: Will You Pass(Oxonian Press 2009), and is the author of Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age(Jossey-Bass 2008), which was named one of the top management books of 2008.

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One response to “Tolstoy on the Common Instinct of Leaders

  1. Pingback: It’s Not All About You. Really! « Linked 2 Leadership·

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