Naiveté In Leadership

“To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant.”

– Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) American educator


Naiveté in leadership has changed the course of history many times and not to its’ favor. Naiveté creeps into all our lives at one time or another with painful consequences and we must learn to guard against it if we want to avoid life’s harsh lessons.

First I think to get going it would be best to define Naiveté in Leadership simply as “not knowing what is going on.” There are different causes for Naiveté in Leadership and my hope is by identifying them for you, this will give you a chance to avoid the great mistakes others have made in the past.

Sometimes leaders are blind or unaware of something due to arrogance, lack of knowledge, want of power and inflexibility.

There are three categories of reasons for Naiveté in leadership.

  1. Ignorance or rejection of the truth related to the reality of a situation, or the true nature of a circumstance.
  2. Arrogance as a mental attitude of jealousy, bitterness, vindictiveness, implacability, hatred, revenge, self pity, guilt, reaction, etc.
  3.  Motivation from a lust pattern like power lust, approbation lust, crusader lust, inordinate ambition from competition, etc.

I think the first two are pretty much self explanatory so I will focus on number three for a bit.


Lust is a powerful force to resist and when indulged it removes the leader from reality with these results:

  1. Naiveté in leadership is first in line.
  2. Lust destroys self esteem and replaces it with inordinate desire.
  3. Lust destroys capacity for leadership.
  4. Lust produces self centeredness.
  5. The desire for self promotion to the exclusion of self responsibility and concern for those under one’s command, this holds true for any situation.
  6. Lust destroys the leaders’ ability to execute leadership. Lust substitutes false concepts through arrogance. The most typical is inordinate ambition and self promotion.
  7. Lust substitutes false motivations of arrogance, with ambition and self promotion for leadership.

Power lust is the main problem of Naiveté in Leadership which results in having or showing a lack of judgment in understanding information and good advice.


Two examples that come to mind are Hitler and Saddam Hussein – both examples of men who lusted for power and fell into the trap of naiveté. But evil dictators do not have a monopoly on naiveté – it is not an exclusive club.


There is a principle here: “The greater the power of a leader the greater the chance for naiveté.”


As you read these examples taken from history, try and ask yourself how they could have avoided Naiveté in Leadership. I think you will find that flexibility coupled with Humility (teachability) would have prevented their mistakes.


Gaius Julius Caesar entered into naiveté resulting in a lack of judgment in 311 iran shipregards to certain things. He was warned there was a plot to kill him, he refused to believe it and to show he was not afraid of it he dismissed his bodyguards and he also pardoned his enemies including his would be assassins, and was killed as a result. He was a great leader in Rome who had tremendous ability in every field he was in – whether it was military on the battlefield or the administration of his country but he fell prey to naiveté.


Napoleon was a man of great genius in warfare. However he was under great naiveté in regard to Russia and Spain. He wanted to invade Spain and Russia. He had an invasion army of close to half a million. In each case he assumed the power he possessed was greater than the terrain of either Spain or Russia. As a result of this and failure to recognize the information in reports that came to him he lacked information and from lacking information his army was defeated left with only 20,000 or so survivors destroying his great power in Europe.


Robert E. Lee – a respected and great general of the South – yet he was naive at Gettysburg which was the key battle in the War Between the States. Lee was leading their invasion into the north and on the first day of the battle Lee had the Union’s only two corps in full retreat and there was no one to stop Robert E. Lee from going all the way to Washington. The union retreated through the town and up Cemetery Ridge but Lee did not force either General Ewell or Early to pursue them. This was a case of naiveté in leadership which changed the course of history with a missed chance for victory.


Naiveté is simplicity of nature and Ewell needed supervision because he should have pursued and defeated the two Federal Corps that had turned their backs and were running.


On the second morning of Gettysburg after leaving Ewell on the left flank Lee never rode to the left flank again and that was Naiveté of Leadership on his part again, this was to be the key battle of the entire war.

On the third day Lee’s greatest example of Naiveté was demonstrated in 2 ways.


First Longstreet suggested an envelopment around the Federals left flank and then pushing on straight to Washington it was open all the way. Lee rejected this.


Second, Lee then ordered Longstreet to make an Infantry frontal attack under the illusion that it would work. This would become famous in history known as “The Charge up Cemetery Ridge” or “Pickett’s Charge” named after General Pickett who led the charge although Longstreet was in command. Longstreet advised Lee that it would be a horrible mistake, the enemy was thoroughly entrenched and yet Lee said my Confederate Infantry is invincible and he told Longstreet to make the attack. This mistake from Lee’s display of naiveté in all probability cost the South the war.


Woodrow Wilson as President was rather naive at the Paris peace talks when he assumed that the US Senate would support the League of Nations and ratify the Treaty of Versailles. They did not. Woodrow Wilson lacked judgment and as a result he lost out completely on the missed opportunities at the Peace talks.


In 1944 Operation Market Garden during World War II – where there was clear intelligence that a Panzer Division lurked near the drop zone – and it was ignored (as shown in the Movie “A Bridge to Far”). This was a clear case of Naiveté of Leadership and Operation Market Garden ended in a disaster.


Franklin Roosevelt was naive when he said “I have Joe Stalin in my hip pocket.” This was arrogance on his part, he did not have Stalin in his hip pocket it was the reverse, Stalin outmaneuvered him in every possible way. Roosevelt lacked both judgment and information.


The same thing happened in Desert Storm. The Iraqis had turned their backs and were running. We did not pursue and destroy them so we came back and fought a costly war again. This is definitely a case of Naiveté in Leadership. I remember how shocked I was – along with others – when we all heard that we had just stopped and did not continue to pursue the enemy and that was it. I knew this was wrong and there would be consequences for this down the road. An opinion many shared at the time.


If these prolific men and events from history all failed on the principle of Naiveté in Leadership we have an even greater potential to fail.

How can the leader avoid the trap of Naiveté that so many before us have fallen victim? I think this could be answered in one word “flexibility”.

Flexibility is the key to getting out of naiveté. Flexibility means adaptability and to be able to change the situation in leadership no matter whether it’s on the battlefield or business, the economy, family matters, etc.


I think a fairly recent example of Naiveté in Leadership due to inflexibility took place near the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in a place called Tora Bora where Osama Bin Laden was trapped in his favorite mountain strong hold. The Spec Ops Commander on the ground and CIA in charge on the ground both understood the importance of killing or capturing Bin Laden. They requested support in the form of an American assault force and blocking force to prevent his escape to Pakistan. This was an American objective and the Afghans had no dog in this fight. General Tommy Franks and the Secretary of Defense refused these urgent requests. They were inflexible and naive they did not listen nor would they understand the situation. They broke the cardinal rule “listen to the guys on the ground.” They had a plan to use minimal US Troops and get the Afghans to do the fighting. In this particular battle they were wrong for many reasons although they are still making excuses to this day for this missed opportunity. None of us know for sure what would have happened if they had chosen flexibility listening to the guys on the ground instead of naiveté. But we can say that the head of the snake would have been removed setting an example to the remaining terrorists. Bin Laden’s escape gave the U.S. a black eye giving hope and motivation to the terrorists along with being able to continue to raise funds which are key to continuing their terrorists operations. The psychological impact alone potentially could have broken Al Qaeda’s back at that time and any good leader knows the difference between motivated and unmotivated troops.


Along with flexibility leadership demands wisdom in relationship to ones command. Here are five points to this principle.

  1. Leadership generally establishes itself through superior wisdom in application or through productivity of some kind.
  2. The leader must think independently so he must not become dependent on opinions which will cost him the ability to think independently.
  3. There comes a time when a leader must make wise and independent decisions for the good of the organization falling in line with the first point.
  4. Good leadership should be flexible enough to listen to good advice from others and to recognize wisdom when presented to him.
  5. The leader must be a good listener and when people come to him with problems he must listen patiently and help them out in whatever way seems to be necessary.

Being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to listen.

Leaders have a responsibility to avoid the trap of Naiveté in Leadership and always remain objective and flexible ready to adapt to changing situations and always listen especially to the guys on the ground.

“A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking being done by cowards and its fighting by fools.” – Thucydides


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