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Looking to the Old and the Young for Leadership Lessons
What makes a good leader? We do well to reach back into the past and learn from two of the greatest leaders in history.

"If you can't swallow your pride, you can't lead."

Sounds wise, doesn't it? How about this one: "Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others."

Genghis Khan
Photo, courtesy Wikidpedia

It's September 2006. In New Brunswick we find ourselves in the midst of a provincial election campaign. Nationally, Canadians are observing the contenders for the leadership of the Liberal party. And all across the country, students are going back to school, where some will find themselves vying for leadership of student councils, clubs and teams.

It seems a good time to consider what makes a great leader. To do so, I thought I'd take the advice of the man responsible for both the quotes by which I began this column and who also said "vision should never stray far from the teaching of the elders."

So I begin by reaching back into the past, back 800 years, to Genghis Khan, the 13th century ruler of the Mongol nation and much of the world. Thanks to the advice of my brother, Alan, who happens to be an excellent leader himself, I recently read Jack Weatherford's biography, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2004).

To read about Genghis Khan is to be humbled. We in the West have an over-rated sense of our own importance in world history. I knew my own knowledge in this sphere is severely lacking but I cringed at how little I knew of this particular leader whose kingdom stretched from Siberia to India, from Vietnam to Hungary, and from Korea to the Balkan states. In Weatherford's words, "whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history."

Anyone in, or vying for, leadership today would do well to learn from Genghis Khan.

We would do well, too, to follow Genghis Khan's advice and to look to our elders, those who have gone before, for lessons in leadership and in casting vision. I was considering this recently when giving a team building seminar to a group of Atlantic Baptist University students who are stepping into student council and residence leadership positions.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

I decided to go even further back into history than Genghis Khan, back to the first century AD when Jesus Christ tried to instill leadership lessons into his band of 12 disciples. There's a story in the Gospel of Mark that tells of an argument among Jesus' disciples. Who, they argued, is the greatest?

You probably know Jesus' response, even if you haven't always observed Christianity to carry it out. The greatest, said Jesus Christ, is the least. The greatest leaders are those who serve. He even plunked a child into the middle of the discussion to illustrate his point.

Children have great leadership qualities, as the ABU students pointed out to me. Children are fearless, curious, generally respectful, but not afraid to ask questions. They are accepting, love to have fun and are creative. They take risks. Children aren't perfect, but while still in their early years of life, they demonstrate some near-perfect qualities.

I'm probably making a leap here, but it would seem to me that the best lessons in leadership come from the very young and the very old. Those with no experience in life see its potential with simplicity; those with much experience see it with clarity. Those of us in the middle, particularly those who seek to lead, need such vision. May we be so wise as to seek it in places we might not expect it to be found.

Lynda MacGibbon is a writer living in Riverview and a former Life & Times editor. Her column appears each Friday and she can be reached via e-mail at

Originally published in Moncton Times & Transcipt, Moncton, NB, September 2, 2006, and simultaneously on




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