In this episode, Richard Lummis and I explore leadership lessons from Toussaint Louverture, who held the only successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere.
Our remarks are based on the recent biography of him entitled, Toussaint Louverture by Phillipe Gerrard. While not an obvious character for study in a business leadership podcast, Louverture nonetheless presented several important lessons which translate into to today’s business environment.
- Know your goals. Louverture’s statements are usually ambiguous, but based on his actions he sought self-determination and respect even over abolition of slavery or independence. For example, Louverture never actually declared independence from France or slaughtered white planters
- Play a long game. Louverture was willing to switch allies and betray friends when necessary. At first, he tried to work with free blacks and planters, then Spanish, then the French, and finally for himself. There was a high cost, however. “Louverture had navigated the troubled waters of the Revolution whtough caution and deceit, but in the process, the people around him had concluded that they could never trust or love him. . . .Men who have no equal are condemned to live a lonely life.”
- Information control. Louverture established public relations by sending agents to Paris to shade the news. His opponents failed to do so. He also made extensive use of press censorship in Saint-Domingue to suppress unfavorable news and events while boosting his own prestige. Always knew what his audience wanted to hear and gave it to them.
- We are creatures of our upbringing. Here Louverture’s lesson is to be very careful about assuming what others’ goals might be going forward. Louverture sought to preserve sugar plantations, which was always going to conflict with freedom of workers. “The barrier was not only economic but psychological. Louverture was not nursed on the Jeffersonian ideal of an independent citizen-farmer. He cam of age in a region of the globe where wocial prestige was bestowed upon large landowners. . . . Despite (or because of) his servile past, Louverture desperately wanted to re-create a planter class, albeit one in which he and his fellow black generals would play the leading role . . . .The most enthusiastic white converts to the Revolution were known as “white blacks”; in many ways, he was a “black white” who had made the economic worldview of his former masters his own.
- Forgiveness goes a long way—but has its limits. Louverture had been trying to protect whites, but his nephew Moïse and Joseph Flaville, an old friend of Louverture’s, kelled over 300 of them, including the old master of the plantation where Louverture was a slave. [Louverture] had personally appointed him to his command early in the Revolution and then welcomed him back like a “prodigal son” every time he had rebelled. Not so this time: Louverture had him ripped to shreds by grapeshot in full view of the garrison of Cap. . . . Louverture’s natural inclination was to be merciful or to ask his subordinates to do his killing for him, but the Moïse uprising so infuriated him that up to 5,000 cultivators [former slaves now working on plantations] were killed in a matter of weeks. . . .Moïse [his nephew] was also a close ally who had assisted Louverture on numerous occasions, . . .yet Louverture insisted that he be court-martialed and shot.
- Don’t forget the small gestures. Napoleon’ failure to respond to requests for a letter led to a rupture with Louverture and the debacle of French invasion (force of 35,000 suffered 29,000+ casualties, including 15,000 dead of yellow fever and 5,000 in combat).
- His treatment by history. Was Louverture a sinner or a saint? Everyone sees what they want to see or history, as with beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Be aware of your preferences lest they become biases. Frederick Douglass in two speeches on same day he was a black George Washington who treated planters humanely (to white audience) or a Spartacus (to a black audience) evidencing “Negro manhood.”
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons