Learning From History

Dec 22, 2017 1 Min Read

History can offer countless insights for leaders trying to navigate their challenges

When I was in high school, I took a history class during the first two years, and then dropped it as fast as I was able to. History was dreadfully dull, and more than a few of us nodded off during class.

I can recall that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. In 1297, the first war of Scottish independence from the English unfolded at Stirling Bridge. We also had lessons on the First and Second World Wars, which began in 1914 and 1939 respectively.

During my time at school, I learnt more historical dates than I cared to know. The reason I found the classes so boring was because there was nothing to say why these events took place, what the circumstances were that led up to them, or what the key lessons were from historic decisions that had far-reaching consequences.

As a result, I felt the same way as Henry Ford who once said: “History is more or less bunk.” After all, the past is dead and buried – what use is it to me to know about events that took place centuries before I was born?

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is the man behind the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When we look to history in the right way, which is to say, when we remember the why more so than the when, there are invaluable lessons to be learnt if we pay close enough attention.

Cynics might suggest that we humans never learn from the past, and they might try to argue that things have gotten worse – not better – over time. This is thanks, in part, to round-the-clock media coverage, where bad news sells. It’s not that the media necessarily lie; however, there is a clear bias towards feeding us negative news (hence the newsroom saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.”)

On the contrary, the past is much less innocent than we think, and the present not nearly as sinister as we believe. The advances in health, medicine, science and technology alone mean that much of the world lives better today that the kings and queens of centuries past – and theirs were often brutal, violent and unforgiving times compared to how we live today.

Without knowing it, we are constantly learning from history. From the chief executive officer (CEO) who relays stories of her past in order to inspire others, to the military commanders who study great battles of the past to inform their own strategies, history guides us in everything we do. Even our own thinking returns often to the past to provide clearer context for the decisions we face today.

Indeed, history can offer countless useful insights for leaders who are searching for ways to navigate their challenges and decide their future course of action. Let’s take a look at four ways history can lend a helping hand in leadership:

1) Compassion achieves more than competition

If we consider the stories of icons such as Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi, their visions for unity and peace were driven by compassion. As Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” While it’d be easy (and understandable) to face difficult circumstances with impatience and frustration, this only serves to deepen existing divisions. Effective leadership looks for common ground, understanding, compromise and commits to doing what is right.

2) Trust your people – encourage their ideas

Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire thanks to his military genius – but his success was in no small way down to the trust and faith he placed in his army of followers, whose innovations and creativity he encouraged to help ensure victory over the enemy. Trusting your people to create and innovate might sound like a well-worn cliché – but how many leaders actually put this into practice, rather than worry about it being “too risky” for business… only to complain when there’s no progress made?

3) Learn to adapt when necessary

In his classic book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu advises leaders to be sure of the terrain so that they can take advantage of it. In leadership, unexpected challenges cause the terrain to shift, and yet some leaders press on regardless, perhaps even uttering that killer phrase, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” While we can get caught up in the beauty of our own ideas, it’s foolish to neglect revising and changing course when necessary. Good leaders are able to step back and look at the bigger picture – they don’t persevere regardless when something clearly isn’t working.

4) Stay courageous

Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.” It’s important to change course when necessary – but it’s just as important to know when you should plough straight on and keep chipping away at a particular challenge. It’s through courage that new ideas are not only discovered, but also carried forward. Even if it feels like you’ve been on a losing streak, success might be just around the corner. History teaches us to learn when perseverance is called for, and encourages us to keep pushing forward until the job is done.


Sandy Clarke is a writer with over 10 years of experience in journalism and PR. To connect with Sandy, e-mail us at editor@leaderonomics.com.


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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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