In this month of Oscar, I am continuing to explore leadership lessons which can be drawn from Best Picture winning movies. Today, I want to consider the leadership lessons which can be drawn from T. E. Lawrence, who was forever memorialized in David Lean’s movie Lawrence of Arabia. The movie was one of the great cinematic achievements of all-time. While Lean does take poetic license to create his epic, most of the movie is based on the facts from Lawrence’s spectacular, if somewhat comet-bursting, career in leading the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. For a further exploration into the movie, leadership lessons and commentary, check out this week’s episode of 12 O’Clock High, a podcast on business leadership where host Richard Lummis and myself discuss the movie, its history and then reflect on the leadership lessons from the non-celluloid Lawrence.

Lawrence was a great leader. John Hollon, in “Lawrence of Arabia: The Art of Leadership From the Back of a Camel”, noted that Lawrence led the Arabs and the Arab revolt by “appealing to their larger sense of purpose, pride, and the desire to come together as a people in a great Arab nation. He made them believe they could be better together than they could be individually.” He illustrated this by citing to a couple of scenes in the movie. The first was when “Lawrence meets with Prince Feisal, the leader of the fledgling and undisciplined “Arab Revolt” against the Turks, deep in the desert at Feisal’s camp. Feisal asks, “(do) you think we are something you can play with…because we are a little people … greedy, barbarous, and cruel?” He tells Lawrence that the Arabs have actually had their moments and were once so advanced that they had public lighting in their cities “when London was a village…nine centuries ago”. Lawrence responds “Yes, you were great. Time to be great again…”

Lawrence was an excellent manager. He was able to demonstrate the larger goal of the Arab revolt and articulate his vision to people who were deemed to be the most backward of the British Empire. Yet he did not come into the Arab camp and try to change things immediately. He developed the credibility with Prince Feisal and the other Arab leaders. Hollon noted that “Lawrence was pragmatic as a manager, employing every technique possible to get the Arabs to work together as a group despite the tribal differences that seemed to always be bubbling right below the surface. He bribed and coddled the Arabs, and he flattered and fibbed to his British superiors, giving them just enough to keep the gold, weapons, and other supplies coming.” His pragmatic nature helped convince the Arabs they could attack and capture the critical Red Sea port of Aqqaba by coming a way the Turks would least expect — across the waterless, rocky desert instead of by sea, as most expected.

Lawrence embraced diversity. The key difference between Lawrence and others in the British Army and the Arab Bureau, the political department for British Arabia, was his embrace of diversity and of Arab culture. This was more than simply dressing in Arab robes but working to understand their culture, beginning with reading and writing in Arabic. Another way this worked was a key scene in the movie, where Lawrence’s understanding of Arab culture “helped him to defuse potential incidents. When the killing of a Bedouin from one tribe by a man from another threatens to turn into a blood feud that could derail Lawrence’s military plans, he steps in and shoots the killer, thereby eliminating the need for retaliation by the family of the dead man.”

Brian Fulgham, in a piece entitled “Six Cross-Cultural Leadership Lessons of Lawrence of Arabia”, expanded on this embrace of diversity by identifying six lessons which can be drawn from Lawrence. Fulgham believes that it was “Lawrence’s cross-cultural adaptation gave him strength, but came with a personal consequence – a cost that every international leader pays if they are successful at leading across cultures.” These six lessons still apply to the modern-day leader of a multi-national, multi-cultural organization.

First, Lawrence was loyal to the Arabs while still a sitting British Army officer and worked towards championing their interests. Lawrence refused to discard the Arabs after the war ended as other Allied leaders had planned to do, with the Sykes-Picot agreement, in their pursuit of colonial interests.

Second, as noted, he respected Arab cultural values particularly around leadership. Lawrence “understood Arab honor and authority structures and never embarrassed his Arab host, Faisal, in front of his own people. To ensure this, he avoided ever crossing him publicly or appearing to exercise authority over him. He never lowered Faisal’s stature in the eyes of his own people.”

Third, in addition to understanding their cultural values, Lawrence adopted them so as not to give offense. “Although he was accustomed to an English standard of living, he never considered the desert life of the Arabs as beneath him. Desert living was a rugged life, especially during warfare, and he adapted himself to it without complaint and with focused resolve. At the same time, he never made any false pretense about being something he wasn’t”. Lawrence never went native, he was not an Arab and never became one.

Fourth was his understanding of what others in the British Army saw as cultural weakness, Lawrence saw as strength. “The Arab tribes didn’t make “good soldiers” according to conventional European military wisdom. But while they struggled to perform with conventional tactics which, when attempted were awkwardly imposed on them, they succeeded with guerrilla tactics that matched their desert nomad patterns.”

Fifth was that Lawrence was not intimidated by other British officers or civil servants who either did not understand him or criticized his approach. Lawrence had many critics particularly among the British who looked down at colonials. Yet these “Colonial attitudes were designed to create distance and domination.” Lawrence never succumbed to this and instead chose a path of drawing near to and serving the Arabs.

Sixth, Lawrence displayed a high degree of cultural intelligence. He was “aware of his own culture, deeply aware of Arab culture; he exercised self-management over his own cultural behavior, and he mastered relationship-management with cultural competence in his interactions with Arabs.”

Hollon ended his piece with what he called the “big lesson of Lawrence of Arabia”, stating, “If there is one lesson that jumps out of the movie Lawrence of Arabia, it’s this: it takes great talent to bring unfocused elements together for a great purpose. No one expects modern managers to be another T.E. Lawrence, but then, no one expected Lawrence to be the great leader and visionary he turned out to be.” He cited to Michael Korda’s book Hero: Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia for the following, “Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most … failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm, determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship and pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people’s causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and, most important of all, a dreamer.”

It is certainly one thing to dream. It is yet another to put those dreams into reality. Lawrence of Arabia’s leadership of the Arab revolt against the Turks is as relevant today for the business professional as it was 100 years ago.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018