historical figures collage

In teaching leadership, you can define concepts, engage in simulations, discuss case studies and travel to unusual settings. Why not combine those approaches with a sure-fire way to bring instant recall: using a real-life hero as the core of your lessons?

Designing a program around such giants as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt or Harriet Tubman can invigorate your class discussions. True, most people are not history buffs, but you can quickly catch them up by distributing advance readings with historic background and leader biographies. Then, your class time can focus on the issues.

Make the connections early by reviewing challenges faced by the historic role model, and then open discussion to finding parallels to contemporary workplace issues. Once the connections are clear, you can work on solutions – the ones the historic role models developed and the ones that participants target for their work.

Begin your planning by picking a training need and then matching it to a historic example. Does your organization have in-fighting, politics and big egos? You could easily turn to Lincoln and his Cabinet, ably described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her best-selling book “Team of Rivals.” Another dramatic example comes from WWII’s D-Day invasion, when Dwight Eisenhower had to balance the priorities of multiple nations, multiple branches of military service and the egos of men used to commanding their own campaigns. The colorful stories bring home the point that your own office problems are not unique, and great leaders have found ways to focus “difficult people” on a common goal and achieve amazing work with them.

If you want to teach ethics, you have a model in General George Marshall, WWII leader and peace-time architect of the Marshall Plan. If your need is to teach people to lead with compassion, Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments make the case that one need not be a great orator or autocrat to be effective. Frederick Douglass can show even the youngest learner the importance of taking responsibility for shaping one’s future. When your organization is short of resources, look at battlefield leaders, like those at the Battle of Gettysburg, who inspired their troops to extraordinary performance despite supply and personnel shortages.

The examples are there to be mined. They will leave people wanting to learn more about the lives of the leaders and perhaps even the historic periods in which they lived. Who can argue with a desire to learn more?

The secret to effective use of historic role models is to balance the history lesson with the leadership lesson. Carefully deliver the history in palatable doses, using movie clips or even re-enactors. Take the class on a field trip to a battlefield, museum, walking trail or leader’s home. Combining these approaches will drive your lessons home, as people respond to the type of learning they prefer.

Never forget the power of facilitation, allowing adequate time for free-wheeling discussion with peers, and letting people “discover” the lessons. You can lecture on Winston Churchill, but why not let people uncover his powers of persuasion by trying out some of his rules for effective speaking? What fun to write your own “Let us go forward together” speech!

Most of all, people will remember the personalities of the heroes from the past. When they return to their busy work sites, they may not recall the details of the class, but they can pull up a mental picture of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill or Douglass and ask themselves how that person would handle today’s problems.