Lessons in leadership

PUBLISHED: 01:02 05 March 2011

What can leadership moments from history teach us and how can this impact the business of today?

Many businesses grow to a certain size with a dominant “owner-manager” character at the “centre of the wheel”. They become successful because of the MD’s drive, intuition, courage, skill, etc. But at some point on their journey they can be held back by the dominant “one man band” model. At this point I have often found it useful to mention the Hugh Seagrim moment.

Hugh Seagrim was one of five Norfolk brothers who served in the British Army in World War Two. His elder brother Derek, was awarded the VC for his bravery in North Africa. Hugh was awarded the George Cross (DSO and MBE) for his courage in Burma. Derek and Hugh are the only two brothers ever to receive the top two military bravery awards, both from the same Norfolk village, and both former pupils of Norwich School.

Hugh Seagrim volunteered to stay behind in Burma when the British retreated to India. Adopting native dress he lived among the Karen tribesmen and led a guerrilla force collecting valuable intelligence, and passing it on by radio. His work was a thorn in the side of the enemy, the Japanese. His constant exploring of the remote mountainous areas meant that he got to know the terrain, and the people, very well. He remained alone behind enemy lines and in constant danger for over a year, narrowly avoiding capture many times. Being 6’ 4” he was affectionately known as “Grandfather Longlegs” by the Karen tribe.

The Japanese eventually discovered where he was operating, and arrested 270 local people, including elders and headmen, brutally torturing and killing them. The Karen continued to assist and shelter Major Seagrim, and pleaded with him not to give himself up. But the enemy made it clear that they would cease reprisals if Seagrim turned himself in. Knowing that this would lead to certain death, he gave himself up to save others. Even in jail he made every effort to comfort the eight men captured with him and pleaded that he should be punished and the others released. His leadership is reflected in that they all expressed their willingness to die with him. All were executed.

Seagram’s inspiration is to remind us that while we might be honoured ourselves the true worth is in the cause for which we fight. To achieve ultimate victory we might have to put others before ourselves. For some owner managers, final victory might mean taking themselves out of the font line. If you are an MD, is the future of your business about you ... or about something bigger than you?

Nigel Cushion is chairman of the Norfolk Leadership Group for MDs, nelsonspirit; and chairman of canapé manufacturer, Frank Dale Foods.

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