3000 years ago Solomon wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) There are new technologies, but not new behaviors. Every leader facing a “new” business, organizational, technological, social, or political situation can be assured that there are lessons to learn from history.
Studying history–almost any history–will strengthen your ability to discern patterns in the swirl of current events, and parse signal from noise.
I recommend leaders follow a 3-part practice:
- Write out observations of current events and issues
- Find parallels in a historical time
- Study that history to identify what worked, what didn’t, what could be emulated, what should be avoided, and what was required of leaders
I can illustrate this with an example.
In July 2018, I made these observations about current events:
- Socialism has become interesting, even enchanting, to millions more US citizens
- US political leaders are stoking the fires of concern about Russia
- China’s president has arranged to hold extraordinary powers in a one-party state
I asked the question: What period of history might have some similarities, and what historical figures?
I realized that Europe in the 1930’s has similarities:
- It’s the early phase of socialism and communism being tried as a political and economic system. They are widely admired by intellectuals (who were not being given, or chose to ignore, information about what was really going on in Russia).
- European royalty and civic leaders are worried about the Bolsheviks and whether a similar revolution could topple their entrenched royalty-and-class structures of power.
- Adolf Hitler becomes the Fuhrer, anointed with ultimate personal authority in a one party state. Many leaders go the appeasement route after wearily burying millions of dead soldiers from the recently ended WW1.
I chose to re-read volume 2 of William Manchester’s epic biography of Winston Churchill, which covers 1932-40. (Tip: biographies are a great way to absorb the leadership lessons of history!)
Churchill was outside the British government’s power circle, and one of the few who recognized the dangers of Herr Hitler. He comprehended the appeal of socialism as a counter to the limiting attributes of the rigid class system. [Note: It was during this period that he wrote most of his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” a 4 volume 10 million word analysis beginning in pre-Roman times. I suspect that his study of history gave him clear insights into the pattern of his day.]
There are plenty of lessons to apply:
- Recognizing the truth, and speaking it consistently to people who don’t want to hear it, is both necessary and personally costly.
- Consistent preparations for the next war (not the last one) require focusing on the strategic but non-urgent objectives.
- You need a network which can give you accurate information, rather than relying on “authorized” channels of communication.
- It’s far easier to stop evil earlier than later.
- Leaders who fail to keep commitments with others leaders crash suddenly, and hard.
- There are only imperfect leaders.
Tap into the rich volumes of history preserved for us. Let the record of those who have gone before you give you insights, resolve, perspectives, and courage.