Principle #5: For leaders the decision is not whether they can lead or
not, it is always a question of whether they will lead or not.
He was the man Americans referred to as “our Marquis.” He was the only foreigner revered on the same level as the Founding Fathers, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and his close friend, George Washington. When he was eight years old his father was killed fighting against the British. At the age of twelve his mother passed away, and he inherited his families’ fortune. He was subsequently sent to Paris to live with relatives and when he was sixteen he married – by arrangement – a daughter of the aristocracy, whom he fell in love with over the course of time.
The Marquis de Lafayette was a well-connected officer in Louis XVI’s army and a frequent guest at Versailles. He was inspired by the ideals of freedom and liberty, which were being fought for in America. At the age of nineteen he decided to sail to America and join the fight for those principles alongside Washington’s army against the British. King Louis tried to have Lafayette captured and arrested before he set sail, but Lafayette was able to escape his pursuers. He landed in Charleston with only a smattering of English that he had studied on the voyage across the Atlantic. From Charleston he made his way to Philadelphia where the Continental Congress – already weary of foreign soldiers – told him that his services were not needed. This did not deter Lafayette. His passion for the cause of liberty could not be extinguished and through his relentless pleading, Congress finally assigned him to Washington’s’ company, without instructions for the General as to what to do with the young Frenchman.
Washington kept him in the background until the battle of Brandywine where the young Frenchman jumped into the foray and showed outstanding courage in rallying the troops to stand and fight against the overwhelming British attack. Washington took notice and the two men –one much younger than the other – developed a bond as a father and his adopted son.
In this the final principle regarding “Leading Leaders” Lafayette is worth noting.
Lafayette worked hard for the fight for independence, both in America and in France. After establishing an outstanding reputation in America and when he returned to his homeland for a visit (forgiven by Louis for his escape), lobbied the King to support the Americans. He was instrumental in France sending both much needed cash and ships to assist in the fight for independence. It was Lafayette who pushed the British General Cornwallis and his troops back to the Atlantic Ocean, where they were trapped by French naval forces waiting off the coast of Virginia,; an effort that caused the British to surrender at Yorktown and marked the beginning of the end in our fight for freedom.
When Lafayette made his final trip to the United States his schedule had to be expanded from four months to thirteen because of the crowds that demanded to see him. Independence Hall, here in Philadelphia, which had been scheduled to be demolished, was allowed to remain standing because there was no other building in the city large enough to hold the crowds for Lafayette.
After the American war, he was greeted as a hero in his homeland and played a key role in the French Revolution. He became the mayor of Paris and the only person trusted by the murderous mobs that eventually dethroned the king and started a revolution.
Yet at the key moment when France looked to him for leadership – when they called on him to become President and really lead them – he backed away. He refused to lead his nation when it was in crisis and he allowed the mobs and their unscrupulous leaders to cause chaos and strife for nearly fifty years.
Principle #5: For leaders the decision is not whether they can lead or not, it is always a question of whether they will lead or not.
As I read Harlow Giles Unger’s biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, I was amazed at the life this incredible leader lived. Like other great leaders (I’m thinking Washington, Churchill, Lincoln, or John Adams) Lafayette seemed to accomplish in his lifetime what it would take others five lifetimes to do. I was struck by his leadership qualities. He led leaders, inspired great followers, possessed a high EQ, worked with difficult people and could be difficult himself. (Marie Antoinette once remarked, “Lafayette will save us from the people, but who will save us from Lafayette.”)
But at the key time in France, it was not a question of whether he could lead the nation, but rather whether he would, and he chose not to lead them. The leaders of France continually came to Lafayette and begged him to lead the country, to step into the crisis as the only person all of Paris would trust to stop the bloodbath that was the Revolution, but he repeatedly made the decision not to exert his leadership – not to give to his nation that deep part of who he was –not to lead.
The cost of great leadership is very high. Even for great leaders it takes all of who they are, and a total commitment of their very being to fight the battles that are required of leaders. Somehow, it was easier for Lafayette to fight the guns of the British than the politics of Parisians.
Leaders count the cost of leading. They evaluate every situation and realize what be will required of them to lead. They commit themselves to that task, to those people, and to the great expenditure of emotional energy it will cost them to lead.
The most important job for leaders today – more important than balance sheets, board presentations and sales quota – is recruiting, developing and inspiring the next generation of leaders who will choose to lead.
Take a look at the team around you. Have you recruited the next generation of leaders? Are you inspiring them to choose to lead in your organization?
When the time comes for you to pass the torch will you have developed leaders to take on that role or will there be a void that must be filled from the outside?
Too many leaders, and far too many boards, would rather let the mobs destroy the city than invest in great leaders.
Know who you are and be it.