After reading the historical biography “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K Massie, I felt inspired to create a list of what turned out to be 10 leadership lessons. Even if not an original idea as I later discovered, a lot can be learned from the monarch.
Described as intelligent, brave and tenacious, Catherine the Great (1762 until 1796) was not only extensively praised for her determined, kind and open-minded character but also for her humour. She is the longest female ruler of, what was at the time, the largest empire on Earth with twenty million subjects.
1. Warm Personality
Catherine displayed a truly warm personality. A German citizen with no connection to Russia, it was her warm character that skilfully won her the hearts of Russian people. Converting to the Orthodox Church in 1744 and learning the language also played a huge role in being accepted as a foreign in Russia, according to Massie.
2. Life-long Learner
Once in Russia, Catherine learned proficient Russian in just one year. Trained from childhood in memorizing and repeating, Catherine had an extremely good memory. She remained a life-long avid reader of contemporary literature. Especially of Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu, Diderot, whom she invited to her court to converse for a period of six-month, and Voltaire, whose library she acquired.
3. Naturally Inclined to Ask Questions
With an open-minded character, Catherine was prone to ask questions.
4. Great Listener
Listening to adult’s gossip, young Catherine learned genealogy. Later in life, such listening skills further aided her in soothing opponents, acting with prudence and making informed decisions.
5. Don’t Hold Grudges
Throughout her life, Catherine learned that supporters and allies can be found in the most unexpected places. It only takes a small shift in circumstances, for an opponent’s best interests to suddenly align with your own.
6. Understand How the World Works
Despite what has been described as a “Gentleman’s mind”, Catherine’s lovingly warm spirit didn’t prevent her from seeing things for what they were. During her lifetime, Catherine bought allegiance with gifts, money, treaties, conspired to realize de coup, sought expert military and legal advice.
7. You Are Responsible for Your Own Happiness
From a very young age, in face of a loveless marriage and in almost complete isolation, Catherine quickly learned to make her own happiness independent from outside events. Later in life, Catherine had 12 different lovers, her preference falling on men with whom she could discuss intellectual issues and seek advice.
Aware of the chaotic state of Russian legislation, Catherine worked tirelessly to create consistent legislation, even if it was considered too liberal and not realized in the end.
9. Leading by Example
To surpass the initial resistance of nobility and set an example, Catherine let herself be inoculated against chicken-pox.
10. Collecting Art as a Form of PR and Personal Branding
The greatest collector and patron of arts in the history of Europe, Catherine set a cultural mark that would not obliterate over the years, Massie says.
Catherine ordered a monumental public statue of Peter the III Emperor of Russia by French sculptor Falconet. This was a way to establish herself as the rightful descendent of the great monarch, when in fact, there was nothing canonical about her claim to the throne. In addition to generous palace, mansion and garden commissions, Catherine understood the honour and prestige collecting art would bring her. Ships loaded with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Rubens, Caravaggio, van Dyck, Veronese, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, arrived on a monthly basis to Saint Petersburg. The crates would only be opened in the presence of the monarch, who would study the paintings at length.
Catherine The Visionary
According to Massie, Catherine’s legacy has been the modernization of the country, championing the arts and putting Russia on the map of international diplomacy. The monarch furthermore laid the foundations for the Hermitage collection, introduced smallpox inoculations, and made possible the raise of Russian intelligentsia through her reforms in education.
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Image Sources (top to bottom): Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov (1763) © Tretyakov Gallery © Wikipedia UK © Hermitage Gallery