Triumph and disaster, success and failure are not as absolute as we seek to characterize them. Success for of history’s great leaders is highly contextual – as we see routinely, some leaders have an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Others fail to recognize success for what it is and yet others are only recognized for their greatness posthumously. What can Hannibal teach us about leadership in the nonprofit sector?

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Most of us have at least a general recollection of the Hannibal story… a general from somewhere in Africa brings elephants over the Alps and attacks Rome. That was the very basic narrative I had in my head when I had a dinner a few years ago in San Francisco with a colleague and her husband, Andreas Kluth. It was the first time I had met Andreas and he was doing research on Hannibal – a lot of research. I recall listening in awe to him describe gripping details of epic battles won and lost by one of history’s great strategists. Equally fascinating were the incredible logistics involved in mounting campaigns some 200 years BC – elephants seem to have become a popular metaphor for problems ever since!

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by either the writer’s penchant for detail, or his ability to weave together a very compelling set of stories – his day job is the West Coast correspondent for The Economist and he has an impressive portfolio of the sort of articles that I seek out each week. His research culminated in a new book about Hannibal that was just released at the end of 2011 to rave reviews (see http://andreaskluth.org/).

“Hannibal and Me” is one of those rare gems that effortlessly engages the reader in a journey of personal discovery. As the title implies, Kluth uses the Hannibal story as the framework and he then puts flesh on the narrative using a rich array of examples of leadership and strategy drawn from his own life as well as the lives of notable business, arts, science and sporting figures. Every chapter offers fascinating insight into such diverse characters as Cezanne, Eleanor Roosevelt , Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

I quickly came to understand why Kluth is so enthralled by Hannibal. He achieved what no other leader had done until that time in the history of the mighty Roman Empire, routing the Roman army at Cannae. But then a strange thing happened. Just when Hannibal had forced the Roman army to retreat, his campaign lost focus and momentum. He spent the next 13 years in control of much of Italy, but no longer the threat to the Empire that he had been. The canny Romans used their defeats by Hannibal to rebuild and the rest is history.

Herein is the nub of Kluth’s thesis: that  rarely do leaders achieve that level of peace and fulfillment that Maslow famously described as “self actualization”. Kluth sums that up as the ability to not let setbacks define you.

Those observations have much in common with the business of philanthropy. How many “successful nonprofit organizations” have quickly become “unsuccessful” with a slight change in momentum, a lack of long term vision or a change in leadership? How many nonprofits were actually successful without knowing it? How significant is the contribution of nonprofit leaders who are not recognized by their peers at the time? And how many leaders ultimately transcend disaster for a larger triumph?

For those who ponder the ever important questions of leadership and strategy, Kluth offers many insights into what makes leaders truly great. He concludes with nine lessons from Hannibal that appear to have universal applicability. Perhaps the one that resonated most for me in thinking about the Alaska nonprofit landscape is #6 – part of success is adjusting your idea of what it is…

His book is now being used at leading business schools to help stimulate new ways of thinking about leadership and business strategy. It is nontraditional but highly relevant to the work of nonprofit Boards and management staff looking for new ways to think about talent development and business strategy. Above all, it provokes us to think differently about the work that we do – after all, how much to we really understand about the role of leadership in success or failure?