Present Tense

Why we all ought to be more interested in history


“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.”  — Marcus Tullius Cicero


Leadership is messy.

Regardless of the time or situation in which they find themselves, there are choices leaders face that are difficult, outcomes that are unexpected, and interactions that can go sideways.

The leader confers with trusted advisors and relies on well-picked team members to make decisions to the best of their ability at the time.

But leadership isn’t like choosing ham or tuna for your sandwich. It’s much more nuanced and requires weighing forces seen and unseen, to result in an outcome that is, on balance, a net positive.

Part of doing that is not only living in the present, but understanding the past. Taking stock in those whose shoulders on which you stand to help you determine what needs doing now.


“We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us.” — David McCullough, 1998


We fall into the trap of thinking we’re unique and never before has someone had to deal with the same issues we have. When we do this, we struggle as we tackle each obstacle as it occurs.

But what if we didn’t have to struggle so much? What if we could anticipate what comes next by recognizing patterns? That could help us avoid traps and jump ahead of the competition.

How can we know who we are and where we are headed if we don’t know where we’ve come from?

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All one needs to do to appreciate this is to look at the history of Afghanistan. The 20-year war that the United States just concluded was never going to end well.

Alexander the Great arrived in the area of Afghanistan in 330 BC after defeating Darius III of Persia a year earlier at the Battle of Gaugamela. His army faced very strong resistance in the Afghan tribal areas where he is said to have commented that Afghanistan is “easy to march into, hard to march out of.”

For as long as outside forces have been trying to form alliances and cohesiveness in Afghanistan, the internal forces have been fighting and rejecting them.

The opening of “A Study in Pink” — the first episode in the BBC’s Sherlock — concerned an army doctor returning to London after serving in Afghanistan in 2010. He was suffering from PTSD and was looking for someone with whom to share lodgings.

This was exactly the scene that opened A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, set in 1881. Dr. Watson returned from war, having been injured at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Outside forces that get involved in conflicts in Afghanistan have always left in defeat. Alexander the Great knew it, and the British knew it — twice before they repeated the error in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.


“The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914


If we are willing to take the time to more deeply understand the events of the past, whether corporate history, local history, or world history, it will help ground you in what you may need today, tomorrow, or next year.

The leader who is prepared is the leader who observes and reflects, learns and challenges, and imagines and decides. [TWEET THIS]

 

That’s much easier when armed with examples from leaders who have done it before.

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Stay tuned Friday for the subscribers-only content when we’ll look at the impact of the past on emotional intelligence. And of course, the usual curated content.