Lessons in Leadership from Historical Warlords

[This is a guest post by Ludvig Sunström who runs Start Gaining Momentum. He writes about practical self-development and gives no-nonsense tips for becoming more efficient. Feel free to connect with him on Twitter and Google+.]

You don’t have to be warlord in order to be a good leader. In fact it’s a rather tough prerequisite to fulfill nowadays.

However, you can learn a lot about leadership from studying history and reading biographies about renowned warlords. I know I certainly have.

Here are a couple of interesting leadership lessons from Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar.

Hannibal Barca, Dare to Believe

“I will either find a way, or make one.” – Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca was one of the greatest warlords who ever existed. He is mostly known for pulling off the logistical feat of crossing the Italian Alps with around 45000 men and 70 war elephants.

The Romans knew that Hannibal and the Carthaginian army were on their way, but they never expected him to be able to enter the Roman Empire by crossing the Alps. Instead they spent months of time and precious resources on fortifying their larger coastal cities in preparation for Hannibal’s expected arrival.

The Romans were completely taken by surprise and never knew what hit them until it was too late. Hannibal went on to conquer large parts of the Roman Empire without ever being defeated for 15 years straight!

This was completely unprecedented – there were very few armies that could even remotely challenge the superiority of the Romans in combat.

None of this would have happened unless Hannibal had dared to believe it was possible. He had to spend many months convincing non-believing Carthaginian statesmen that it was a viable plan to cross the Alps and that he was the man to do it.

Question: When was the last time you dared to do the unconventional?

When there is no Support You Must Support Yourself

“I have come not to make war on the Italians, but to aid the Italians against Rome.”– Hannibal Barca

Hannibal and his army beat the Romans for 15 years straight without receiving any support or reinforcements from Carthage.

The Carthaginian statesmen didn’t like him, so they refused to give him any help. If they had decided to send extra reinforcements and supplies, Hannibal would likely have conquered Rome and history as we know it would be very different.

One of the reasons why Hannibal was able to remain in Italy for so long without help was that he was skilled in enlisting support from the Italian people.

Much of his time was spent on smearing the Roman State and convincing the Italian people that he was a good guy who wanted them no harm. He wanted to turn the people against the state.

Hannibal would often capture Roman legionnaires and hold them for ransom, but the Roman State consistently refused to pay the ransom. Still, Hannibal would let these prisoners walk away.

In doing this Hannibal managed to make the Roman State look bad and as a result the Italian people began to hold in him increasingly high esteem. Some of the Roman prisoners even went so far as desert and join Hannibal’s army in taking revenge on Rome.

Question: How can you turn your enemy’s/competitor’s allies against him?

Julius Caesar, Challenge Authority

When Caesar was only eighteen, he courageously disobeyed the dictator Sulla, who was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire at the time.

Sulla demanded that Caesar divorce his wife Cornelia – with whom he was deeply in love.
When Caesar refused, Sulla put a bounty on his head equivalent to 100 yearly wages of a legionnaire and Caesar went on the run for months.

Question: Do you dare to stand up to authorities to protect those you care about?

Lead by Example

Even though Hannibal is supposedly the first warlord to lead by example, Caesar is perhaps the one who is most well-known for doing so.

Caesar suffered from terrible migraines and fits of epilepsy from time to time, but he learned early not to let that rule his life.

Instead he went to the extreme and fought it in every way possible. He would march along quietly with his men despite having migraines.

In doing so he showed his men that complaints, low morale, and weakness were unacceptable despite adverse circumstances.

Lesson: If you want others to behave in a certain way you must lead by example and do it yourself first. Don’t expect anyone else to do what you are not doing.


Caesar practiced long and hard during his life to become a competent communicator. He was talented not only in formulating plans and strategies, but also in communicating them to other people.

Caesar delegated orders constantly. He had at least two assistants in his presence to whom he dictated written messages to.

Question: How can you simplify your communication and become better at delegating tasks?

Great Leaders Simplify

When Caesar ruled as dictator he made many legal changes. He wanted to get rid of old-fashioned laws that hindered productivity and clogged communication channels.

Caesar implemented antihierarchical regulations of different kinds and was on a mission to rid Rome of flamboyance. For instance, he made it illegal to wear purple-colored clothing and pearls with the exception special occasions.

Question: How can you simplify your organization?

Comment Question: Who are you favorite historical leading figures and why?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great history with lessons. My favorite historical leader has to be King David. Much wisdom, much humility, much belief. Good post.

    • Thanks Floyd,

      Great example on your part as well!

    • King David is personally one of my favorites. Thank you for reading and sharing.

      • Gotta agree on the David front. Talk about multi-talented. Administrator, poet, musician, warrior, statesman, prophet, king. How has no one made a movie about this guy? What a story.

  • Recently I was listening to a podcast series on Winston Churchill done by Larry Arn the president of Hillsdale College. Churhchill was able to stay focused during the very dark days for Europe during WWII. He pressed forward with an extreme boldness willing to lay it all on the line. He also had a great ability to recover from failure. (Lost an election before becoming prime minister and he was also hit by a Taxi in NY in 1931. The accident nearly claimed his life).

    • Great points Jon!

      I’ve read the following two books by Churchill:
      – My Early Life
      – Great Contemporaries.

      (It’s very interesting to read the section about Hitler in Great Contemporaries. I believe he ends it with something like: “Whether this man will help bring Germany back on its feet or draw the world into chaos is yet to be known. History will tell”

      • Thanks for the book suggestions. I will be sure and check them out.

        I have always wondered how our world would have turned out had Hitler used his leadership skills for good.

        • You’ll like them, I’m sure.

          Haha, don’t go there. There is no point in speculation :)

  • Hey Ludvig, a history lesson is not something I expected but thanks! I don’t know who my favourite leader is as they are all flawed individuals but anyone who attempted to take over the world has to be admired for their balls if nothing else.

    • Hahaha Jamie!

      I agree with you. It takes a certain kind of man to aspire to world domination, and it is true that they are flawed individuals, but there’s often many great lessons to be learned from them. Fearlessness is definitely one of them.

  • Big insights from these historical figures. My favorite historical leaders are Gideon and David from the bible. They were really “mere men” with lots of weaknesses but they accomplished much.

    • Yeah, these two guys are very interesting!

      I see. I don’t know about Gideon, I’m not very knowledgeable about biblical facts. What are some of the major feats that Gideon accomplished?

      • He didn’t think highly of himself at the beginning but went ahead to accomplish some astounding things, with the help of God – brought down some altars of false Gods and riled his people to the point they wanted to kill him. He went to war and as is typical had thousands of men in the army. But God reduced his army of over 20,000 men to 300 men. and they won the war! And so thereafter the nation wanted to make him the king but he refused and told them that God would be their king.

        I like his story cos it just reminds me that ‘small’ people can do great things, once they make “small changes” to their minds and hearts! God’s super like that :)

        (You can check up on Gideon and his story the bible in the book of Judges chapter 6, 7 and 8)

  • I love history. Thank you for sharing these lessons. Very applicable for today.
    The only names I can think of at the moment is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was killed by Hitler and George Washington who declined being made King even though it was offered to him.

    • Great insights, TC Avey! It’s amazing what we can learn from the people in history. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

      • I’ve been away from the blogging world. It’s been nice but I’ve missed it.

        • You have been missed. Glad your back:)

    • Thanks for reading.

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer.. I didn’t know about him, I just did some reading on him. Interesting.

      • The book on him by Eric Metaxas is the best I’ve found- most accurate. I’ve read 2 of Bonhoeffer’s own books as well. He is an interesting man.

  • This is a great post! Love the history, the quotes and the lessons/questions. Great read!

    • Thanks Micah. If you ever have time, check out:

      Caesar: Life of a Colossus — By, Adrian Goldsworthy

  • Interesting thoughts from the warlords. This bit of history gives me a little bit more perspective on life and leadership. Enjoyed the post.

    • It a good perspective on leadership. Ludvig did a great job with this post. Thank you for taking the time to read and share.

  • Wow, this was a fascinating post, Ludvig.
    I’ve always been inspired by Genghis Khan and Napoleon. Khan for ruling such an immense territory and being unprecedented in his ability and power – Napoleon for his unconventional and genius approaches to tactics and strategy in war.

    • Yes, it sure is! It’s amazing what we can learn from the people in history. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  • Isn’t history great? You can learn so much from people, by what they did and how they thought. These are great examples too from some very innovative leaders/warlords. One of my favorites was Alexander the Great. There was a prophecy about the gordian knot. That anyone who could undo the knot would become a great ruler. So Alexander went up to it and sliced it with a sword. He said that it didn’t matter how the knot was undone and that his actions did solve the prophecy. That’s pretty innovative thinking for back then. I guess that is an instance of someone thinking outside the box.

    • Yes, it sure is:) Thank you for taking the time to add to the discussion. Great thoughts! It reminds me that even a small action or change can have a huge impact.