What Catherine the Great can teach CEOs

The end of the 18th century was one of the most turbulent in history. Bestselling author Jay Winik tells Fortune's Nina Easton what today's corporate chiefs can learn from great leaders of the past.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

(Fortune Magazine) -- Author Jay Winik's tour de force Civil War book, April 1865: The Month that Saved America, was a surprise international bestseller. The book also turned the author into a favorite go-to guy for top CEOs and government leaders seeking historical perspective on what Winik calls "the poetry of leadership." Last week, Winik published a brilliant new work, The Great Upheaval, which takes a panoramic look at the critical close of the 18th century, intertwining the tumultuous events taking place in America, France and Russia.

The stars of this book are, of course, some of the most fascinating (and challenged) world leaders of all time: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; and Napoleon, and on and on.

Author Jay Winik says modern CEOs can learn a lot from how great rulers dealt with crises.
Winik says he'd most like to dine next to Catherine the Great, whom he calls charming and incredibly effective as a ruler.
George Washington had vision, says Winik. And he didn't lose his cool in moments of crisis.
Napoleon was a "remarkable leader" who failed because he believed he was invincible, says Winik. It's a trap business leaders also fall into.
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Their stories are set against the momentous events of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and a Russian taste for imperial expansion that sparked the West's first holy war with the Muslim world. Fortune Washington Bureau Chief Nina Easton asked Winik to help today's global business leaders find lessons on leadership that transcend time.

Q. In The Great Upheaval, you criss-cross the Atlantic Ocean to explore an age that you call "probably the most momentous era in all of human history," with breathtaking tumult and change. How did the most successful leaders overcome this global turmoil?

A. In the cases of George Washington and Catherine the Great, they always kept their head. They never were overwhelmed by bad news. No matter what was happening, they kept their wits about them. And through it all, they managed to get people to do what they otherwise wouldn't or couldn't do. Even with divisions of opinion, they managed to hold people together.

For example, to expand her Russian empire Catherine waged a war to destroy the Ottomans, a bloody quagmire in which 55,000 died in one battle alone. Yet she was unfazed. By the same token, as the war went on and the body count mounted after four long years, she said to her generals, "Get me out of this." She was tough and firm but also proved to be flexible.

Q. What lessons do the great statesmen of the late 18th century hold for business leaders coping with global turmoil today?

A. Great leaders have a vision that others can't always see. Witness Bill Gates or Google's creators. Look at George Washington: He took a ragtag country at the edge of the world, surrounded by predatory powers that wished it nothing but ill.

But even in dealing with the greatest military power in the world - France - he didn't back away from the ideals and visions of America. He was shrewd, employing tough diplomacy to get what he wanted. Some of my most ardent fans are CEOs, and the most successful have a vision for their companies while at the same time motivating their people to work on behalf of that vision.

Leaders have to hold tough, and firm. But by the same token, as they are buffeted by competition and surprise moves by opponents, the great ones also know how to be flexible. They know when they have to retool and readapt. You see that over and over in history, and similarly, you see it in business.

Q. What other traits are shared by world leaders who have successfully navigated troubled waters?

A. They never get down. It's always important that they hold their hold their heads high. Even when things are difficult and troubled waters are swirling around, you see in great leaders the image they present to the world - a sense that we can conquer this, we can deal with this.

Bad news never throws them off. It may throw off their troops, it may throw off their sales people, but it never throws off great heads of state or CEO's.

Q. You paint a portrait of King Louis XVI as a surprisingly thoughtful leader, but one wracked by indecision as the French Revolution gained a toehold and spread, leading to death, atrocity, and his own beheading. So, when does sensible caution become dangerous indecision?

A. Louis was an educated man, a modern man who both sought to energize the ailing French economy and provided diplomatic and military force to the Americans. But he was a weak leader. As the French Revolution took a bloody turn, he was unable to make the difficult decisions that a George Washington or a Catherine the Great would have. The taking of the Bastille was followed by a Parisian mob marching on Versailles, the greatest palace in the world. Louis' guards were murdered and the royal family was taken back to Paris to become in-house prisoners of the Revolution.

You know what Catherine the Great said when she heard about this? "Who is this king who is letting cobblers decide his fate? Give me 10,000 Cossacks and I would end this revolution in a week."

When George Washington was faced with a comparable possibility of a bloody insurrection, the Whisky Rebellion, he countered with force, as well as nuance. The insurrectionists were carrying mock guillotines and toasting the blood-thirsty Robespierre. Washington assembled 15,000 men - more than at Yorktown - and reviewed the troops. They were prepared to crack down on the marauders, who were threatening to march on Philadelphia, then America's capital. At the same time, the President agreed to meet some of their demands - on taxes, for example.

Q. The stories you tell raise an enduring question for leaders: When does bold action become dangerous overreach?

A. Of course, the analog in business is when companies are doing well, CEO's think they can just keep expanding or moving into new fields, and before they know it, they're bankrupt. We see that over and over.

Napoleon was a remarkable leader, nonetheless guilty of dangerous overreach. At the time, he defined the glory of France. He was a great general who swept through Europe and seemed to be invincible. But then he made a fateful decision. After contemplating splitting Ireland from Britain or attacking America, he instead decided to go to the Middle East to take Egypt and Palestine, declaring: "I dream of myself riding an elephant, holding a Koran, and creating a new civilization and a new religion."

In the beginning, he enjoyed a stunning number of victories. But he was dangerously overreaching - and before he knew it, he was routed and had to retreat through the terrible desert heat. His men dropped like flies, and he even asked his doctors for lethal doses of opium rather than allow his retreat to be slowed down. Then he abandoned his men and headed to France.

There's a sense of intoxication you get from feeling invincible. You see it in business leaders as well as heads of state. When everything is going well, it's hard to imagine that anything could go wrong. So one trait you see in great leaders - as diverse as Catherine or Washington - is a determination to surround themselves with people who can tell them when things are going wrong. If you don't do that, there's no reality check on this feeling of invincibility.

Q. One of the most fascinating themes of your book is how world leaders closely watched each other and were influenced by each other - even in an age devoid of rapid communication. We still see that today. Why?

A. Show me a leader who isn't curious and I'll show you one who will be a failure. There's a desire to learn. And only people who have walked in their shoes can really understand this fascinating phenomenon. Heads of state monitor each other, react and respond to each other. George Washington corresponded with Catherine the Great. They belonged to the ultimate club, the "all-leaders club."

Q. Of all the great figures filling your book, who would you most want to sit next to at a dinner party?

A. Washington was ultimately the most important, but I'd choose Catherine the Great. She was the most important leader astride the world. She helped mid-wife America's independence; she turned Russia into a great imperial power; she was idolized by the philosophes. Voltaire told her, "My head swims at your accomplishments." She was a poet and a playwright and wrote sonnets - she even drew upon Montesquieu 20 years before the Founding Fathers. She was charming and charismatic and an uncommonly witty companion.  Top of page