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T. E. Lawrence, forever known to history as “Lawrence of Arabia” and immortalized in film, surpassed the expectations of both his superiors and allies by helping the British and Arabs defeat the Ottomans in World War I.
Lawrence may have been much younger and less experienced than other British officers working with Arab forces, but Lawrence’s respect for and understanding of his allies’ culture proved crucial to his success.
He also demonstrated a natural propensity for leadership.
In 1917, he was commissioned by the British military to write a pamphlet about his insights on working alongside Bedouin forces. Lawrence notes that the resulting principles, named “27 Articles” and recently republished for their 100th anniversary, “apply only to the Bedu,” but among these guidelines are universal truths about effective leadership.
These insights may have been born from a military alliance for a specific period of history, but below, we have summarized and adapted the eight points that are applicable to leaders of any kind – even today.
- Do not aggressively implement your plans as soon as you are put in charge. “Go easy for the first few weeks. A bad start is difficult to atone for,” Lawrence wrote. Learn about your team members as individuals. Learn their personal interests and aspirations. Lead your people to favorable decisions rather than demanding them. It is better to increase another’s prestige at the expense of your own. Maintain a constant dialogue instead of confining check-ins to infrequent, structured meetings. “Formal visits to give advice are not so good as the constant dropping of ideas in casual talk,” Lawrence wrote. Have a healthy relationship with your team members without growing too close to them. You can harm your integrity if friendships compromise difficult but necessary decisions. Keep your profile as low as you can. “Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed,” Lawrence wrote. Again, do not let ego distract you from your role of inspiring action. Maintain control of your emotions, even when chastising team members. Lawrence noted that criticism topped with a smile is better “than the most violent speech,” and “the less you lose your temper the greater your advantage” when influencing others. Do as little of your team’s work as possible. It is better to have your subordinates do an assignment “tolerably than that you do it perfectly.” This keeps you focused on big picture decision-making and gives ownership to each person over their work.
In the introduction to the new edition of “27 Articles,” foreign policy expert John Hulsman noted that Lawrence achieved what his superiors could not because he realized that effective leadership does not come from heavy-handedness, and that the best way to influence others is to earn their respect rather than demand it.
Lawrence, Hulsman said, realized that “this restrained, secondary role for himself is the key to exercising power.”