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The Course of Human Events
We're all connected by events past and present
“When in the course of human events…” — Thomas Jefferson, 1776
Leaders know that a common experience or vision can form a rallying cry for their people.
In history, there are precious few moments that mark a collective experience.
Moments when time seemed to stop for a great multitude, causing a collective realization that they were all witnessing the same thing simultaneously.
In some cases, the dates are indelible and can define the moments themselves, without a need for additional explanation:
January 6, 2021
September 11, 2001
December 7, 1941
July 4, 1776
March 15, 44 B.C.
The farther back in history we go, the less certain we are of specific dates. But we understand the global significance of particular events:
The building of the Great Wall
The crucifixion of Christ
The fall of Rome
The signing of the Magna Carta
The Black Death
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1917
The point is that these are events that, in their time, provided a common experience for people. A reference point of reality from which they could operate.
Today, January 28, marks one of those times.
You may not remember what happened on this date, but when you learn that it was on this date in 1986 that the space shuttle Challenger exploded, you may have some memories.
For me, it’s the memory of being in my school cafeteria when someone ran in and shouted “The space shuttle exploded!”
We kind of laughed it off as a prank, but it quickly became clear that he wasn’t joking. We rushed to one of the few rooms containing a TV (on its wheeled cart, complete with the gigantic VCR housed beneath) and huddled around the screen. We knew that on that spacecraft was Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to be part of a space program.
And there, on live television, we watched as this drama unfolded before us, with news anchors trying to make sense of it and what little video footage there was of the shuttle launch, replaying in dreadful loops.
Even as an adult, the overwhelming emotions I experienced as a child haunt me. Shock. Horror. An indescribable sense of grief.
That grief united us, cementing in our psyches the feelings we had and the images we saw. The whole nation was grieving that day, and President Reagan acknowledged it with one of his most touching addresses to the nation, just four minutes in length.
“I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: ‘Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.’
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard his ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”1
This is what great leadership looks like when individuals come together as teams, and teams come together as communities: a unifying sense of purpose, driven by a collective experience.
And when faced with a course of human events that require us to dig deeper, we hope to have leaders who can rally us together, pointing us to the next waypoint.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.