American philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even those who do know the facts of history may misunderstand the lessons or believe their talents will enable them to transcend the lessons that apply to lesser mortals.
Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia in winter in 1708 and was ultimately defeated by the weather and the Russian people’s ability to bounce back from defeat and retreat. Napoleon and Hitler thought they could do better. Those who led Great Britain’s far-flung empire knew the history of Greece and Rome in the original languages, yet they failed to see their own arrogant overreach, starting in 1776.
But looking to the past has more value than avoiding fatal moves on the grand chessboard of history. One of the things that great contemporary leaders I’ve interviewed share is a passion for reading about history, especially biography. But what do today’s business or organizational problems have to do with those of even the 20th century? And why should we include others with different backgrounds and experiences than ours in our organizations?
Putting our challenges in perspective. No less an authority than the founder of modern management studies, Peter Drucker, told students that if they wanted the ultimate case study in leadership, they needed to go back to the career of Cyrus the Great (590-530 B.C.), the founder of the Persian empire. Goals don’t get much bigger than that and he not only had to defeat powerful enemies, but harmoniously incorporate numerous ethnic groups with different languages and traditions, improve distant communication when good roads for horse messengers were scarce, and promote general prosperity at a time when no one understood how to create a healthy economy. The problems facing leaders of the past make our own seem less challenging. We should express gratitude that we can take things like availability of clean water, public literacy, and insured bank accounts for granted.
Getting a fresh viewpoint. Consultant Jay Abraham recommends that clients find innovative marketing solutions by studying how their counterparts in very different industries approach their tasks. It’s easy to get into a rut and make broad assumptions to blind one to creative options. Reading about leaders in other times, places, and fields is like traveling to an exotic country and, on returning home, we see everything differently.
Becoming well-rounded. We don’t allow anyone to enter medical school without an undergraduate degree because it’s important that citizens know something beyond their specialty for society to function in a healthy way. Likewise, the more we know about the world and its history, the better we can relate to others. You may find yourself bonding in passionate conversations with customers, vendors, employees, or mentors over who the greatest Civil War general was, the overlooked inventions of Nikola Tesla, leadership lessons of Admiral Hyman Rickover, or whether Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer.
Getting inspired by role models. Just as fiction can help us understand things the rational mind might otherwise block out, reading about the lives of high achievers can help us integrate the lessons that will help us navigate the troubled waters of life. Being successful isn’t a destination, it’s a plateau in a lifelong journey, and we need all the inspiring role models we can get. In Extraordinary People, I related physicist Stephen Hawking’s achievements against all odds, the unlikely rule of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, the critical role played in the American Revolution by the one-legged Gouverneur Morris, and the difficult path run by Jackie Joyner-Kersee to win Olympic medals.
Including diversity in age, gender, and background within our organizations ensures that we get different viewpoints on lessons from history, as well as contrasting concepts about the needs of our organization, our community, and our stakeholders.
Scott S. Smith is the author of Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success (www.ExtraordinaryPeopleBook.com) and God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion (www.GodReconsidered.com). He is a freelance contributor to the “Leaders & Success” column of Investor’s Business Daily www.investors.com.
This article is reprinted from Issue #5 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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