When we think about great leaders in the history of politics, warfare, sports, etc., we picture them determined and stone-faced. From Winston Churchill to Douglass MacArthur to Joe Torre, we see folks whose iron will and total composure won the day.
Occasionally, on this list, we come across someone who, rather than a scowl, offers up a smile of hope, and I can think of no one who fits this bill better that Franklin Roosevelt. In fact it’s his signature smile and optimism that many believe helped get America through the Great Depression.
And then, only very rarely, do we envision a great leader being overcome by their emotions and openly weeping. And sports fans know who I’m talking about — the legendary football coach Dick Vermeil, who took the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl and, more than a decade later, won one with the St. Louis Rams.
Now, it’s worth an examination to determine why, let’s say, 95 percent of all the great leaders don’t tip their emotional hands, and certainly don’t shed a tear for the crowd. And it’s because, of course, when you are giving in to your emotions, you are not focusing on solving the crisis at hand — you really can’t do both at once. The point of being master of your emotions is that you can keep working — no matter how dire things have become — on turning the situation around.
In the fantastic show, “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” almost every story includes a near-death survivor recounting how they fought off the temptation to panic. The definition of panic, of course, includes the cessation of thought.
Want to know some historically significant folks who agree? Start with George Washington by checking out the excellent Ron Chernow biography — “Washington, A Life.” I dare to say that the central theme of the book is that the main struggle of Washington’s life was mastering his emotions. Washington knew the kind of person he wanted to be, and realized a core part of that character was someone who could control himself. In fact, in that time, one of the worst things you could say about a man was that he was controlled by his passions (many accused John Adams of this). Since Roman times, to be controlled by anything was a very bad thing. To be manly was to be master of one’s self.
I decided to hit on this topic while listening to “Napoleon, A Life,” by Andrew Roberts, during which I came across an excellent explanations of the benefit of self-control.
What follows is Napoleon, in his own words, after his Grand Armée was largely destroyed — by the weather, famine, disease and the enemy — during his 1812 invasion of Russia:
“In my own case, it’s taken me years to cultivate self-control to prevent my emotions from betraying themselves. Only a short time ago, I was the conqueror of the world, commanding the largest and finest army of modern times. That’s all gone now. To think, I kept all my composure, I might even say preserved my unvarying high spirits. Yet, don’t think that my heart is less sensitive than those of other men. I’m a very kind man, but since my earliest youth I have devoted myself to silencing that chord within me that never yields a sound now. If anyone told me, when I was about to begin a battle, that my mistress whom I loved to distraction was breathing her last, it would leave me cold, yet my grief would be just as great as if I had given way to it and, after the battle, I should mourn my mistress, if I had the time. Without all this self-control, do you think I could have done all I’ve done?”
The author followed with: “So rigid a control of one’s emotions might seem distasteful to the modern temperament but, at the time, it was considered a classical virtue. It undoubtedly helped Napoleon deal with his extraordinarily reversals of fortune.”
Though your reversals of fortune may not be Napoleonic in scale, they will occur, and they may be of the greatest pain to you. But the lesson applies nonetheless — keep your, head, your composure, and control yourself, because doing so will assure you the fastest reversal of fortune back from bad to good.