Category Archives: History

Overcoming Leadership Challenges – Part 1 : In History

Not too long ago I had the opportunity of reading:  Forbes, Steve, and John Prevas. “Hannibal of Carthage .” Power ambition glory: the stunning parallels between great leaders of the ancient world and today — and the lessons you can learn. New York: Crown Business, 2009. Based on this reading, I am writing posts on the lessons that we can learn from Hannibal’s amazing leadership and also look at some successful leaders from recent times that I believe practiced Hannibal-like leadership style.

Whenever we remember a successful or an unsuccessful leader we tend to remember them for what they did. For example, we recognize Cyrus and Alexander for conquering and building empires. However, it is equally important to distinguish a leader for how he did things rather than just for what he did. Hannibal is one of those leaders in history who did the impossible: he led armies over mountains that no one thought could be crossed, and he went against a force that no one thought could be beaten. Hannibal was able to achieve such success by following the simple principles of staying focused, thinking ahead and managing details.

Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar who was the army general of an ancient state Carthage; located 300 miles from Rome. From the age of nine, Hannibal accompanied his father in battles and like his father, he soon grew eternal hatred for Rome. “I swear that so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.”Soon after his father’s death Hannibal took command of the army and launched the mission against which he had been sworn.
One of the main reasons behind Hannibal’s unconventional success was his strong focus on the mission and respect for his followers. From the beginning, Hannibal strongly believed that as a leader if you provide enough motivation, discipline, and means for excelling self-interest you can get people to follow you to do anything. Like the other leaders of his time, Hannibal’s leadership style was authoritative and precise, however, he understood the importance of getting constant feedback from those he commanded. He led by example and never asked his soldiers to do anything that he would not be willing to do himself. That’s why a major portion of his leadership was around training and rewarding his soldiers; many of whom came from lower classes of society. In addition, Hannibal possessed incredible self-control and lived modestly. He “put his mission over his personal comforts and resisted being corrupted by wealth and success.

Moreover, Hannibal was a leader who always thought ahead in the future and projected outcomes. He was one of the few leaders who recognized the importance of having broader knowledge other than just military and political affairs. Before leaving for the war, he surrounded himself with scholars and learned both Greek and Latin – for cultural and strategic advantages. Soon he realized that the war between Rome and Carthage was inevitable and decided to take the first initiative which led to the Second Punic War.
Hannibal won several notable battles in Italy, however, his greatest accomplishment was crossing of the Alps – one of the most dangerous and treacherous mountain range covered with constant snow and unexpected weather conditions. Hannibal had 80,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 40 war elephants. Through this journey, they encountered several local tribes that attempted to initiate battles, however despite suggestions from his officers Hannibal refused to mobilize his soldiers. While some soldiers thought of this as a cowardly behavior on Hannibal’s behalf, however, this is an example of the thinking-ahead quality that Hannibal possessed. In addition, this shows great component of Hannibal’s leadership “understanding which battles are important to win and which would simply waste resources and deflect attention from the objectives.”

Nevertheless, by the time they finished crossing the mountain Hannibal had lost several good soldiers and the ones left were extremely tired and weak. Even though Hannibal was able to motivate his soldiers to keep moving by promising them “enough gold, silver, and slaves for a new start in life he knew that he had a bigger problem to handle. Hannibal knew that he could not take his soldiers with such lack of energy into traditional battle and had to think strategically. In the first encounter with Romans, Hannibal decided to attack in the dark early morning through freezing water; which seemed like a suicidal tactic to his officers. However, Hannibal’s plan involved ambush attack behind enemy lines which would surround enemy-soldiers when they retreated. Likewise, in another attack, Hannibal positioned his soldiers in such manners that the rising sun on the morning of the battle would blind the Romans and the dust raised by all the movement of men and animals would blow into the faces of the enemy as they advanced. Such great attention to detail from Hannibal greatly helped him win numerous battles and overcome obstacles. “Hannibal won his battles because he exploited every advantage that terrain, weather, and psychology could afford him.”