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Catherine the Great: Leading Expansion

“A great wind is blowing and that gives you either imagination… or a headache.” 

Catherine II was the ruler of Russia for more than thirty years, a time that became known as Russia’s “Golden Age”. Her remarkable rise from humble beginnings in Germany to becoming the empress of Russia and the most powerful woman in the world is an extraordinary story of success, yet it takes an understanding of why she said, “A great wind is blowing and that gives you either imagination, or a headache” to understand what made Catherine II so “great”.

Sophia of Pomerania

Born in Prussia, Catherine’s birth name was Sophia Augusta Fredericka and her father belonged to the ruling German family. However, despite the title of princess, she grew up in a family with very little money. It was the ambitions of her mother that led to Catherine moving to Russia and being presented as a potential wife to Peter III, heir to the throne.

She was just 14 years old and had no knowledge of the Russian language, but she already had a strong sense of her own destiny. In her memoirs, she wrote, “The title of Queen rang sweetly in my ears,” giving an indication of the level of determination she already had to succeed.

Whatever it Takes

Catherine despised her future husband, finding Peter to be boring and immature, but she married him at the age of 16, becoming empress consort when he succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III. She knew he would not make her happy, but she also knew he was incapable of being an effective ruler and she would at least be the power behind the throne.

From the moment of setting foot in Russia, Catherine had worked hard at ingratiating herself with the Russian people. She learned the language and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, stating in her memoirs that her mind was made up to do whatever it would take to one day wear the crown.

Empress Catherine

As predicted, Peter III proved to be a disastrous leader and Catherine orchestrated a coup, forcing him to sign abdication papers. She became Catherine II after rallying the support of Saint Petersburg’s troops and people, and began a reign that would span 34 years until her death.

Her ambition, determination and hard work gave her the prize she saw as her destiny, and she used her position of power to set about reforming Russia. She became an “enlightened” leader, not only expanding Russia’s land and influence in the world, but also promoting art and education, helping to develop, enhance and strengthen Russian culture as we know it today. The first Russian university was founded, along with theatres, museums and libraries, and though she was an absolute ruler, Catherine was loved by the people as a benevolent leader, leading to a six-month period of public mourning after her death.

Imagination… or Headache

Not all of Catherine’s methods can be applauded, but her drive, ambition and leadership qualities are none-the-less admirable. She began preparing for her success at a young age and she worked hard and courageously to achieve her ambition. Throughout her life and her reign, a great wind of change was blowing across Russia, but her strength of character and her vision of her own and her country’s future allowed her to use her imagination to affect positive change, no matter how many headaches she endured along the way.

Catherine once said, “Power without a nation’s confidence is nothing.” Whether leading a country or leading a team in business, there are going to be stormy times and headaches, but we’d all do well to face these times with imagination so we too may inspire confidence in those we lead. The qualities that made Catherine great can also make a business leader great… just imagine!