I came across the transcript of a talk given by Field Marshall William Slim about his experiences of leadership at The Seventh Elbourne Memorial Lecture in 1962, and wondered if the essence of leadership had changed much in the past 50 years.

For those of you who have not heard of him, Field Marshall Slim was born in 1891, fought in both the First and Second world wars, and was wounded in action several times. During World War II he led the 14th Army, the so-called “forgotten army” in the Burma campaign.

What Slim spoke about at the memorial lecture made interesting reading.  He believed leadership to be a combination of Courage, Willpower, Judgment, Flexibility, Knowledge, Integrity.

First courage because it is the virtue in a person.  Without courage there are no virtues.  Faith, hope, charity, and the rest do not become virtues until it takes courage to exercise them.   For example, a leader has to have courage to make the right decisions and stand by them.

Next, willpower – the determination to see something through.

Then judgment, a cool balancing of the pro’s and con’s, which is essential because the greater a person’s courage, the stronger their determination and the greater the disaster if they choose the wrong course.

With a changing world, flexibility of the mind is essential.  So ‘I’ve done it this way for the past 10 years and been successful’ is not a good reason as it may once have been for traditional approaches.

Knowledge is also vital as he or she must keep a jump or two ahead, not just of competitors but also followers, otherwise they have no justification for trying to lead them.   Leaders therefore must never stop learning.

Finally, leaders must have integrity, and integrity in a leader is more than honesty, it also means a having a genuine love your people.

What he said struck a cord with me and my own experiences of leading teams, and so I decided to delve a bit deeper by looking at more recent leadership.  I opened my copy of James Kouzes and Barry Posner book, The Leadership Challenge, to see what they had to say about leadership.

Interestingly in the section about what followers most admired in their superiors, Kouzes and Posner identified that the characteristics were 1) integrity (is truthful, has conviction), 2) competence (capable, productive, efficient), 3) forward looking and 4) Inspiring.

So the qualities Field Marshall Slim espoused 50 years ago are in my view very similar to those identified by Kouzes and Posner, and are therefore still relevant today.  For example, both describe the importance of honesty and integrity, knowledge and competence.


The main difference I feel between what Fiield Marshall Slim’s view of leadership was and leadership today is that we want our leaders to be forward looking and provide direction.  However, perhaps this was not much of an issue for him, because what he was trying to achieve was probably very clear to his troops anyway.