Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lessons from the life of T.E. Lawrence: “A Touch of Genius”

May 13, 2017
What were T.E. Lawrence's admirable qualities?  He was a monomaniac with a mission. His focus on a goal was total and complete. He possessed super-human endurance, braving the most inhospitable elements. He was a deep thinker, planner and strategist, conceiving military plans that were uncommon and unique.  He was a world-class active listener, speaking only when asked.

T.E. Lawrence. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When I was 6-years-old, living in Japan, once a week my brother, sister and I went to the movies on base, near Yokohama. One day we sat through all 216 minutes of “Lawrence of Arabia.” A haunting biopic by master filmmaker David Lean starring unknown actor Peter O’Toole.

It was a revelation. T.E. Lawrence, a British Captain dressed in Arab clothing riding a camel stuck with me like chewing gum on my shoe. I have read five books on T.E.’s life including his masterpiece “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”

Ben Franklin once wrote, “If you want immortality; write something worth reading or live a life so compelling, you are written about!” Mr. Lawrence did both. He grew up in England to a middle class family, born in 1888, the third of five boys. He was an exceptional student in topics that interested him, history, geography, military, language (he eventually spoke French, Arabic and German) and didn’t much care for any other subject. 

The posthumous comments include adjectives such as “genius,” “powerful,” “influential,” “brilliant,” “driven,” “charming,” “charismatic,” “crazy,” “magnetism” and “power over life.”

His youngest brother said, “I received over 500 letters after his death. He had a disdain for worldly success. He wanted it when he was young; he got it; and came to despise it.”

He was a poet, warrior, scholar, best-selling author, diplomat and soldier. At 5’5” and 130 pounds, he was not an imposing figure. Yet, when pressed to describe in one word, “genius” comes up more than any other word. It begs the question, why? What were his admirable qualities? 

  1. He was a monomaniac with a mission. His focus on a goal was total and complete.
  2. He possessed super-human endurance, braving the most inhospitable elements.
  3. He was a deep thinker, planner and strategist, conceiving military plans that were uncommon and unique. 
  4. He was a world-class active listener, speaking only when asked.
  5. He was fiercely independent from a very young age. 
  6. He was a voracious reader in his areas of interest: military history, language, geography, topography, classic literature (Shakespeare, Dante, Spenser) intelligence and photography.
  7. He was an inveterate journal keeper and artist, often recalling things he had seen years before with incredible accuracy.
  8. He was a man of letters, writing thousands to people like Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw (and his wife, his life-long confidant), E.M. Forester and Thomas Hardy.
  9. He was a long-term thinker, often delaying gratification if it meant achieving his objectives.
  10. He had “brains and dash, guts and grit!”

The old maxim, “I shall prepare myself and my time will come,” applied to T.E. From a young age he searched for a cause he could commit to — a noble and challenging cause that would feed his desire and brilliant mind. By 25 he fell in love with Arab culture, history, and their plight. To put an end to Turkish tyranny was his aim. This rather austere way of life in an all-male community suited Lawrence’s puritanical nature. He did not drink or smoke and always ate sparingly. He grew to love the harshness and beauty of the desert landscape. 

He knew in order to unite the disparate tribes of Arabia he would need to find a leader, a man of vision, ambition, keen personal insight, proud and popular. He found that man in Emir Feisal. This hot tempered, often impatient, but well educated man would be the person to lead in a near impossible objective. Unite the tribes and overthrow the Turks.

Writing to a fellow officer, “The situation is so interesting that I think I will fail to come back. I want to rub off my British habits and go off with Feisal for a bit. Amusing job and all new country. It is by far the most wonderful time I have had. I have become a monomaniac about the job in hand, and have no interest or recollection except Arabian politics just now.” 

His brilliant strategy to take the critical port city of Akaba from the desert side was the turning point in this revolt. It was the hinge on a giant door of military success.

Writing to a friend, “After the capture of Akaba, thing changed so much that I was no longer a witness of the Revolt but a protagonist in the Revolt.” 

From there he turned to guerrilla warfare, with his small army he blew up bridges, cut lines of communication and almost single-handedly defeated the Turks. He eventually became the Hero of Damascus, but by then he was disillusioned with the infighting and politics. His extraordinary journey ended with him being promoted rank of Colonel, then diplomat. After France and England divided up the spoils and broke most the promises made, Lawrence, feeling guilt and remorse, returned to England, changed his name and joined the RAF as a private, repairing motorcycles.

In 1935, at age 46, T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident. 

George Bernard Shaw said, “Lawrence was a genius, nothing more and nothing less and therefore not to be judged or analyzed by the standards applicable to more normal persons, however competent or distinguished.”

Winston Churchill said, “Being out of sympathy with those who have sought, by diminishing him as a scholar, a writer, and a military leader, to cut him down to their size, I maintain my conviction that was an exceptional human being.” 

Quotes from T.E. Lawrence:

“The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.”

“Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.”

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible. This I did.”

Would you look at that... I still have gum on my shoe! I guess it’s time to watch “Lawerence of Arabia” again. I have four hours to kill on my next flight. Might as well study a genius…

Book of the Month: “A Touch of Genius” (The Life of T.E. Lawrence) by Malcom Brown and Julia Cave

Song of the Month: “Constantinople” by They Might Be Giants

Movie of the Month: “Lawrence of Arabia” by David Lean

Mark Matteson is one of the EGIA Contractor University faculty members. EGIA Contractor University has assembled the most experienced and dynamic faculty ever put together. Faculty members have personally built some of the most successful contracting companies in America. Visit Contracting Business for more information and to learn about the Contractor Leadership Live event.

Matteson gives over 75 presentations each year. You can book him now to secure the inspiring message that will spark your group’s success! To read free blog posts, articles, special reports, or to sign up for Mark’s monthly e-zine or watch Mark’s demo video, go to: Call 206.697.0454 or email [email protected].

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