HomeBusiness StrategyEssence of Leadership? Seeing Triumph in Tragedy.

Essence of Leadership? Seeing Triumph in Tragedy.


Here is a story that poignantly illustrates the essence of leadership.

In “Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success”, Jim Clemmer tells a story about Thomas Edison.

Renowned as one of America’s most famous inventors, Edison also demonstrated powers of leadership that would rival any general.

This story illustrates that, even in the face of the most cruel adversity, Edison not only looked for the positives, but attempted to instill that attitude in his followers. This truly was the essence of leadership.

“In 1914 Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey, was virtually destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were insured for only $238,000 because they were made of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. Much of Edison’s life work went up in smoke and flames that December night.

At the height of the fire, Edison’s 24-year-old son, Charles, searched frantically for his father. He finally found him, calmly watching the fire, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind.

“My heart ached for him,” said Charles. “He was 67 — no longer a young man — and everything was going up in flames. When he saw me, he shouted, “Charles, where’s your mother?” When I told him I didn’t know, he said, ‘Find her. Bring her here. She will never see anything like this as long as she lives.’”

The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”

Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver the first phonograph.”

Seeing Things Differently

Edison saw beyond the immediate disaster to a positive, he saw things differently.

Seeing things differently is demonstrated in two stories about Tom Watson Jr and Henry Ford. Watson’s interpretation of a serious situation particularly echoed the Edison story, re-framing apparent loss and cost into positive, learning potential. Seeing things differently to others appears to be a characteristic of leadership. The Henry Ford story, as well as demonstrating a different way of thinking, also illustrates the leadership concept of valuing ideas.

You might want to read the story of two British Prime Ministers from the 19th century, both brilliant men in their own way, but they had a very different impact on those around them. The story sheds some light on how you might Define Leadership Excellence – easier said than done.


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