Lawrence of Arabia: The Art of Leadership From the Back of a Camel

Editor’s Note: With the Academy Awards nearly here, TLNT asked some prominent thought leaders to reflect on their favorite movie with a management or HR theme. We’ll feature one a day up to the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 27.

By John Hollon

If there is anything we’re really lacking today, it’s someone with insightful leadership, smart and sensitive management skills, and a deep understand of (and commitment to) diversity in the workplace.

Yes, we need someone like Lawrence of Arabia.

The great 1962 movie, directed by director David Lean (he also directed classics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Dr. Zhivago), won Best Picture that year, and rightly so, because it does a first-class job of depicting how T.E. Lawrence, a young and somewhat inexperienced British Army lieutenant, pretty much singled-handedly rallied a nearly unmanageable group of squabbling Bedouin tribes together into an army that carried out the World War I “Arab Revolt” against the Turks.

You might call it, “the art of leadership from the back of a camel.”

Although some question the film’s portrayal of Lawrence — the Wikipedia entry says “The historical accuracy of the film, and particularly its portrayal of Lawrence himself, has been called into question by numerous scholars” — anyone who has read much about him, particularly the new biography by Michael Korda, knows that although some of details may have been altered, the movie generally captures the essence of Lawrence as a larger-than-life leader who inspired those around them to do things they could only dream of.

Lawrence as a leader

And just how did Lawrence lead, especially when it came to Arab tribes fractured by clans, political rivalries, and blood feuds? He did it by appealing to their larger sense of purpose, pride, and the desire to come together as a people in a great Arab nation. He made them believe they could be better together than they could be individually.

There is a scene early in the film where Lt. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), meets with Prince Feisal (played by Sir Alec Guiness), the leader of the fledgling and undisciplined “Arab Revolt” against the Turks, deep in the desert at Feisal’s camp. Feisal asks, “(do) you think we are something you can play with…because we are a little people … greedy, barbarous, and cruel?” He tells Lawrence that the Arabs have actually had their moments, and were once so advanced that they had public lighting in their cities “when London was a village…nine centuries ago”

“Yes, you were great,” Lawrence responds. “Time to be great again…”

Peter O' Toole (with Omar Sharif), as British Lt. T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.
Peter O' Toole (with Omar Sharif), as British Lt. T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.

Time to be great again. This simple admonition from Lawrence is the essence of his leadership philosophy, and challenge, to the Arabs. By appealing to their pride and deep desire to be a seen as a great people, he shows them the way to regain past glories by focusing on the larger goal — driving the Turks out of Arabia.

Today’s leaders can learn a lot from this simple example, because people everywhere want to work toward a greater purpose. This is the core of today’s employee engagement philosophy, and great leaders in senior management and HR know that rallying the troops to buy into the vision of a larger, loftier goal, as Lawrence did for the Arabs, can ultimately yield great benefits.

Lawrence as manager

But, showing the way to the larger goal was probably the easiest part of Lawrence’s terribly difficult assignment. The bigger challenge was how to manage diverse, undisciplined, and frequently barbarous Arab tribes into a cohesive unit. This was easier said than done, particularly because of the nature of the Bedouin to fight among themselves and their inability to patiently focus past the next train they were going to loot.

Much of Lawrence of Arabia shows how this young British lieutenant deftly managed the various Arab tribes, as well as his British superiors, by focusing both on the very specific (the next guerrilla raid or  encounter with the Turks) as well as the larger vision (capturing Damascus and forging an Arab state).

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Lawrence was pragmatic as a manager, employing every technique possible to get the Arabs to work together as a group despite the tribal differences that seemed to always be bubbling right below the surface. He bribed and coddled the Arabs, and he flattered and fibbed to his British superiors, giving them just enough to keep the gold, weapons, and other supplies coming.

His pragmatic nature helped convince the Arabs they could attack and capture the critical Red Sea port of Aqaba (now in modern Jordan) by coming by a way the Turks would least expect — across the waterless, rocky desert instead of by sea, as most expected. Although the movie takes some liberties with how Lawrence pulled this off, his management and leadership skills are ultimately what made this surprising and unexpected victory possible.

Lawrence’s embrace of diversity

Probably the most surprising part of Lawrence’s success, at least to the British, was his embrace of Arab ways. Now, no one talked about diversity back in 1917, but Lawrence clearly understood the importance of immersing himself into the Arab culture and better understanding them.

Lawrence with the Arab Army after capturing Damascus.
Lawrence with the Arab Army after capturing Damascus.

Lawrence not only dressed like an Arab, but he worked hard to understand their culture. He knew that he he was suspect among the Arabs because he was both a European and a Christian, but his embrace of the culture helped pave the way for the Arabs to accept him in their ranks and separated him from the other outsiders who had tried to unify the Arabs before.

His understanding of Arab culture also helped him to defuse potential incidents. When the killing of a Bedouin from one tribe by a man from another threatens to turn into a blood feud that could derail Lawrence’s military plans, he steps in and shoots the killer, thereby eliminating the need for retaliation by the family of the dead man.

The big lesson of Lawrence of Arabia

If there is one lesson that jumps out of the movie Lawrence of Arabia, it’s this: it takes great talent to bring unfocused elements together for a great purpose.

No one expects modern managers to be another T.E. Lawrence, but then, no one expected Lawrence to be the great leader and visionary he turned out to be.

As Michael Korda writes in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia:

Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most … failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm, determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship and pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people’s causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and, most important of all, a dreamer.”

Yes, it helps for managers and leaders to dream, especially if those dreams are about how to help others accomplish great things, as Lawrence of Arabia did. That’s something we can all take away from this film.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.