“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
I am finishing reading a fascinating biography on Thomas Edward (TE) Lawrence called Hero, by Michael Korda. It is a great study of how a 5’5’’ illegitimate son of an undistinguished, upper middle-class Englishman and Irish nanny became one of the most influential men in history.
Today Lawrence (1888-1935) remains one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the 20th century. He was both a liberator of the Arabs against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and a sharp instrument in the militarism and diplomacy of the colonial powers—England and France—to carve up the Arab lands into pliable territories that became nation states. As time has shown, these countries had no religious and ethnic cohesion, and it now seems they may not stand the test of time.
For me, however, Lawrence was so many things. A certified hero and brilliant military tactician in guerilla war. A born leader of men. A charismatic fighter. A scholar and linguist. A consummate and tough-as-nails explorer. A great writer. A global celebrity, before there were celebrities, thanks mostly to a multimedia show after the war about his wartime exploits by the brilliant American publicist Lowell Thomas. An innovator in military strategy far ahead of his day.
Perhaps even as important as any other influence in his life, he was also a bastard—an illegitimate child at a time when such stigma had far greater stains than it does today. As a bastard myself (I was adopted), it is a link I have in common with Lawrence, as well as having visited places in the Middle East where he fought, including Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and the Sinai (all as a tourist in my case).
Winston Churchill, himself both a great World War II leader and controversial apologist for the colonial system he defended much of his life, called Lawrence “one of the greatest beings alive in this time.”
Aqaba a Feat of Imagination:
Of all his many exploits, Lawrence’s role in the Arab conquest of the port city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, in July 1917, remains one of the singular most amazing feats of arms, logistics, and unrestrained imagination.
In 1917, when it appeared the Allies could lose the Great War, Lawrence and his band of Arab fighters travelled 600 miles on a weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable that the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror). The Arabs numbering 2,500 men entered Aqaba without a shot and lost just two men. Their opponents melted away. Lawrence then crossed the Sinai to Cairo to inform the new British commander-in-chief, Gen. Edmund Allenby, of this history-changing victory.
The event is the centerpiece of the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia. For me, the scene that defines Lawrence and dreaming large is when he stays up all night and envisions how to change the tides of a war. In the morning, Lawrence convinces his ally, Sherif Ali, to join him with just 50 fighters, with the taunting line, “Aqaba is over there. It is only a matter of going.”
To this day, I keep a picture of that scene on my Facebook page as a reminder of acting boldly and dreaming impossible dreams.
Korda’s depiction of Lawrence provides keen insight to the real man’s complicated life. As I read it with multiple lenses, I am impressed by many things that come through that have relevance to anyone today:
- Lawrence followed a classic pattern of mastery: apprenticeship as an archaeologist with a master, multiple areas of intellectual interests, rigorous training and self-directed study, curiosity, open mind, willingness to take great risks.
- Lawrence achieved military greatness by not being a soldier, but by being atypical and an anti-soldier, which was the right strategy for the right place at the right time. He did know how to shoot and use explosives too.
- Throughout his life, Lawrence built and used powerful networks. This included the British intelligence-gathering for the Middle Eastern theatre, top cabinet officials in London, the Foreign Office, the Secretary of War, Arab tribal leaders, and military officers. Lawrence built his networks by leveraging the importance of what he could do for them and say to them. And vice versa.
- Lawrence was supremely confident in his views, which were grounded in rigorous personal experience with first-hand encounters in the field, in dangerous situations, and with an expert understanding of multiple disciplines (cartography, language, military history, religion, and culture).
- Lawrence never wasted time doing thing that were not of interest to his curiosity and imagination.
- Lawrence was never afraid of pain and embraced it as a means of understanding limits he always tried to break. Great leaders have always been able to respond to and even master their pain and suffering and not be bent or broken by it.
- Lawrence was a good judge of character, and understood who to align himself with in his career path–always choosing the right master, such as Gen. Allenby.
- Lawrence always made his work stand out, and the quality of his work caught the eye of wise superiors, from his work analyzing the Arab revolt for his military peers in Egypt that was keenly followed to his Oxford thesis on Crusader architecture in the Middle East that opened doors to field work in the desert.
- Lawrence relished the outdoors, adventure, drama, the myth of a hero’s quest, and creating links where others failed to see what he understood.
- Lawrence fully understood the importance of symbols, such as the knife he bought in Arabia, the Arab dress he wore, and his physical place in a march among leaders of the revolt.
- Lawrence mastered theater and stagecraft in his actions to influence opinions and motivate and inspire people in a guerilla war.
- Lawrence inspired others by taking great personal sacrifices and showing he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the larger mission.
- Lawrence never disowned his upper middle-class upbringing, and he used it to navigate his way out of some early young mistakes to positions of power afforded only to the privileged.
- Lawrence realized that ideas with deep historic and religious roots are what motivate movements, not weapons and tactics alone.
- Lawrence recognized the importance of storytelling and myth making, and he used all of his talents to control his story and brand.
- Lawrence was a shape shifter, who could be different things to different people, but always himself.
Becoming Great on Your Own Terms:
I think one of the most telling periods of his life came after he graduated from Oxford and spent four years in the Syrian/Turkish desert at Carchemish on a dig, where he learned his craft (1911-‘14) under the auspices of Sir Leonard Woolley. (That relationship would be revived when Woolley became part of the Arab Bureau in Egypt that Lawrence was assigned to.) Lawrence used his time well on this project. This experience meant organizing projects, motivating workers, settling cultural disputes, finding friends in all ethnic groups, studying the larger political world around him, and seeing the chances this knowledge could bring.
Every one of these skills he employed later in his more active setting at war. Lawrence took what appeared to be useless skills and made them his strongest attributes that no other person in the British army had. He had made himself indispensable by following his own path.
For anyone looking for a bit of a reboot in their life, in terms of making more of a mark with their job, their relations, their purpose and meaning, I say, give Korda’s book a look on a long trip or holiday. You may find some lessons to be learned from someone who truly dreamed his life in daylight, and then died young.