Three Leadership Attributes from England’s First King

Leadership can be learned. Leadership skills may be cultivated. Crowned on Christmas Day in 1066, English King William I’s leadership skills set precedents that forged much of Western Civilization. For one example, the English language was developed because William required that the decisions of his secular courts be understood by all of his subjects, uneducated vassals and nobles alike. A new language grew from this common-sense requirement. William’s specific decisions like this were the product of learned behaviors. Here are three learned behaviors that today’s leaders may learn from a conqueror. (Buy my related book from Amazon.)


William’s first lesson in leadership began with his birth. He was the child of Duke Robert I of Normandy and his mistress Herleve. William’s father was married for political gain. Estrith, an older, barren woman was the sister of King Canute who was the most powerful man in the region and who became an ally of Normandy through the marriage. Because his birth was illegitimate, out of wedlock, William’s right to become the Duke of Normandy was often questioned. His detractors always referred to him as a “bastard”.

Due to the accident of his birth, William learned that no one is perfect. During his minority, he forgave Raoul de Gace, who hired men to assassinate him. He later embraced Raoul as an adviser. Throughout his lifetime William repeatedly forgave any nobleman who was willing to confess his shortcomings and to pledge his allegiance.

Faced with the demand for overnight results and ever-increasing success, most of today’s leaders fail to cultivate the humility required for a positive long-term impact. Everyone from the basic follower/participant or entry-level employee to the natural leader or chairman of the board needs the freedom to fail, more than once. Humility in leadership is required to embrace another person’s strengths and weaknesses.


William observed that his father, Duke Robert I, provided for his estranged wife while also elevating his mistress to the highest level. When it was rumored that Duke Robert murdered William’s uncle in revenge, his father sought consolation in Roman Catholic Christianity. Robert left his successful duchy to make a pilgrimage to the center of Christianity, Rome, and to other holy locations. After Robert’s death, William benefited from the French King Henry I’s integrity. King Henry continued to educate and to protect William throughout his minority. Henry promised Duke Robert that he would ensure William became Duke of Normandy, even though killing William might have benefited the king.

William deduced that noblemen who lacked integrity, failing to fulfill their obligations to their liege, should be exiled, imprisoned or even executed.

Leaders who lack integrity are viewed as untrustworthy by all. Without the trust of one’s followers, a leader cannot lead. Integrity requires consistent honesty about one’s own motivations as well as acknowledging the needs of others.


William was about the age of seven when his father told him that he would become the next Duke of Normandy. From that young age William never doubted his right to be duke. Whenever challenged, he did not waver in the face of claims from more legitimate ducal candidates nor did he bow to stronger warriors. He was the legitimate duke. Period.

William’s wife, the duchess Mathilda, initially refused his advances. He courted her for several years. Once they were married, William’s uncle the Archbishop of Rouen excommunicated the couple. William remained steadfast in his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church throughout the early years of his marriage, and eventually managed to negotiate the Pope’s removal of his excommunication.

Duchess Mathilda was a descendant from an earlier Saxon (pre-English) King. Bolstered by this blood connection, William asserted his right to the Anglo-Saxon throne. Once he set his goal to become king, he overcame the reluctance of his vassals, the obstacles imposed by his father-in-law, and the requirements of launching an invasion from across the Channel. When William finally landed in the Bay of Pevensey, in his mind the defeat of the usurper Harold Godwine, who had claimed the throne, was a foregone conclusion.

Leadership requires clarity of purpose. Consistency in the material goal as well as a strong belief in the rationalization behind the methods used to achieve that goal are essential for success.

When a leader, like William the Conqueror, makes all of the little decisions required during daily life and administration of others with humility, integrity and clarity of purpose, the larger result is a lasting impact. Beyond the English language, William’s little decisions set many precedents into motion. The results of William’s little decisions resonate today including: a trial by a jury of one’s peers, the promotion of human rights, the separate roles of church and state, the manipulation of the masses with mythic claims, and the stereotypes of medieval social structure and architecture from the powerful Sheriff to the castle walls and gothic cathedrals soaring above peasant hovels. William’s decisions not only saved the Roman Catholic Church in northern Europe but also set up a powerful office in the Archbishop of Canterbury who eventually separated the Anglican church from the Roman one. William’s descendants are still the British monarchs and the those of his associates still form the British aristocracy.

Lasting leadership requires humility, integrity and clarity of purpose. Guided by these behaviors any leader may make decisions that last a thousand years.

Read more about William’s remarkable life in my book: “The Last Battle – The Life of William the Conqueror”. Available from Amazon.

Ancient History

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