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Margaret MacMillan Launches the 2015 CBC Massey Lectures

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
29 September 2015 - 7:21am

What makes good leaders? This was the question that framed Margaret MacMillan’s opening lecture in the 2015 CBC Massey Tour, which commenced last week in Fredericton. It was the first in a series, including St. John’s, as well as upcoming lectures in Victoria (September 30), Calgary (October 2) and Toronto (October 7). During each presentation, MacMillan draws from her recent publication History’s People: Personalities and the Past (2015), to explore the qualities (both positive and negative) of individuals who have shaped the world in which we live.

In this first lecture, Dr. MacMillan focussed upon leadership and the art of persuasion. Drawing from the examples of Otto von Bismarck, as well as William Lyon MacKenzie King, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MacMillan laid out an interesting argument for “good leadership.” Good leadership, MacMillan explained, demonstrates four key characteristics:

1.    Timing and opportunity;

2.    Instinct and determination;

3.    Capacity to bring others along; and

4.    Driving ambition.

MacMillan began by elaborating upon the political career of Otto von Bismarck. She described in colourful detail how the Prussian leader ruthlessly bullied his way into power – through good luck and good timing. Thus, by adopting a complex strategy of international trickery, von Bismarck managed to bring about a union of German states. He possessed few admirable qualities. He was determined, ruthless, and did not worry about principles – yet was opportunely elected to Prussian parliament at a time when things were beginning to change.

MacMillan then expounded upon the quirkiness of William Lyon MacKenzie King, who often consulted his Ouija board to seek advice from his dead mother. Yet despite such eccentricities, as a leader Mackenzie King possessed an innate ability to reconcile rather than exaggerate differences. He seemed to instinctively know where public opinion was moving on particular issues. Drawing upon Canada’s Second World War Conscription Crisis, MacMillan illustrated how MacKenzie King was able to breach a chasm in public opinion, thus crafting the now historic statement “Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.”

As a third example of good leadership, MacMillan discussed the political career of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his great capacity to bring others along with him. Through his “fireside chats,” Roosevelt communicated in clear and credible ways, using vivid analogies that reached Americans in the comfort of their homes. In this way, he used his chats to educate and to prepare public opinion for actions yet to come; in so doing, he restored confidence in Americans’ ability to help themselves, and shepherded the United States into the Second World War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt also demonstrated another quality of leadership, and that was great drive and determination. As MacMillan pointed out, having been born into a life of privilege, then paralysed by polio while a young man, he exhibited a tremendous will to succeed. He also possessed great compassion for others.

Through this series of lectures, MacMillan demonstrates in rich and provocative detail, how history is an important tool for understanding our own world - as well as the world of others. By revealing the foibles and quirks of past leaders, she challenges us to look beyond the faults and frailties of human nature, to consider what would have happened if particular leaders had not been… in that particular place… at that particular time. Would things have been better or worse? These are the turning points in history that fascinate MacMillan the most.

In St John’s, MacMillan spoke about great leaders who went overboard – who became convinced that they were always right, and refused to listen to the objections of others. This week, in Victoria, she will be talking about risk-takers – including New Brunswick’s Lord Beaverbrook. All of the lectures will be broadcasted on CBC Ideas, commencing the week of November 2, and can also be followed on Twitter at #Masseylecture.