Heroes & History: Lessons for Leadership from Tolstoy's War & Peace | Summary and Q&A

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October 1, 2014
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Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Heroes & History: Lessons for Leadership from Tolstoy's War & Peace

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Summary

This video discusses Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace and its portrayal of leadership in history. It argues that the idea of heroic leaders shaping history is a myth and that the true drivers of history are the millions of ordinary individuals. The video explores the concept of leadership in the novel, the role of narrative in shaping historical understanding, and the importance of culture and social networks in influencing the course of events.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the main message of War and Peace regarding leadership?

War and Peace argues that the stories of heroic leaders creating history are myths. The novel suggests that history is shaped by the will of ordinary people and complex systems of interacting actors and actions. The concept of individual leadership is portrayed as insignificant in the grand scheme of history.

Q: How does the video describe Napoleon's portrayal in War and Peace?

The video portrays Napoleon as a character who is made into a historical Hollywood figure. He is depicted as an actor who is more concerned with his own ego than with the well-being of the people. The video criticizes the idea that Napoleon and other leaders have the power to shape history through their decisions, suggesting that their influence is overestimated.

Q: What role do heroic narratives play in shaping historical understanding, according to the video?

The video explains that heroic narratives of leadership are used to create a sense of order and rationality in history. They provide a compelling storyline with heroes and villains, a beginning, a critical moment of choice, and an ending. However, the video argues that these narratives simplify a complex reality and do not accurately describe the true drivers of history.

Q: How does War and Peace challenge the concept of heroes and villains in history?

War and Peace challenges the notion that heroes and villains are solely responsible for shaping history. The novel suggests that villains are portrayed as producing the histories in which they are involved, and this concept of leaders making history leads to the vilification and even execution of unsuccessful leaders. Furthermore, the video argues that history is cast in terms of the actions and intentions of leaders, but stories of history are universal and should be viewed with skepticism.

Q: How does the video describe the importance of ordinary competency in shaping history?

The video emphasizes the importance of ordinary people who demonstrate competency in their everyday tasks. It contrasts the competence of the artillery officer Tushin with the bombastic and irrelevant generals. The video suggests that it is these millions of competent individuals who truly make a difference in history and highlights the role of culture and social networks in harnessing their capabilities.

Q: How does the video describe the relationship between leadership and historical understanding?

The video argues that leaders play a role in constructing the buildings, art, and architecture that enhance historical understanding and enrich our lives. It suggests that while leaders may not change the course of history directly, they create the artifacts and networks that contribute to an overall sense of culture and capabilities within a society. Leadership involves developing and utilizing the values and spirit of a culture rather than imposing a grand plan on history.

Q: How does War and Peace portray the role of planning and strategies in shaping history?

War and Peace scorns the idea of advance planning and strategies as pretenses of foolish leaders. The novel instead praises those leaders who are patient and passive, going with the flow of history. General Kutuzov embodies this wisdom by observing and responding to the unfolding events rather than trying to control or change the course of history.

Q: How does the video connect the concept of leadership in War and Peace to modern life?

The video suggests that the concept of leadership portrayed in War and Peace can be applied to modern life. It emphasizes the competency of ordinary individuals and the importance of culture and social networks in influencing the course of history. The video also highlights the value of beauty in everyday life and the role that individuals play in creating it through their passion, serenity, and grace.

Q: What is the role of family and social networks in War and Peace?

War and Peace portrays family and social networks as essential elements of a nation's capabilities. These networks provide structure and support, allowing individuals to tap into the strength of their communities. The novel suggests that leadership involves exploiting these networks for the capabilities they offer and building relationships based on trust and reciprocity.

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