Why leaders should know their history

History always fascinated me and I seriously considered becoming a historian after leaving school. Nowadays, I am astonished at the low level of historical knowledge amongst the general population. Within the organisation, I led. Basic knowledge of when the organisation arrived in the United Kingdom and the rather turbulent history which followed is poor. I find this a is a worrying trend because …

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

George Santayana – Spanish philosopher

Why do people forget history?

To be quite direct; this is first because history is taught in a very one-dimensional way. History is not only knowing dates and some facts associated with them. Instead, it is about understanding the larger forces which shape events and make them happen in the way they do. In my opinion, knowing that William the Conqueror fought and won in Hastings in 1066 is one part of the puzzle. Understanding why the battle was won, which decisions led to victory, and what are the ramifications of this victory; are the other parts of the puzzle. Consequently, history can interact with other disciplines such as geography, science and even mathematical models like game theory.

Secondly, I and others have noticed an increasing bias towards optimism and positivity in modern leadership settings. The best illustration of this bias was the widespread assumption made in the 1990s that we had reached the “end of history” and see a 21st century free of wars and conflicts. The events of the last few years shattered this optimistic assumption, and as I write these sentences, Europe is once again at war, something which many thought would never happen again. Nonetheless, the naïve assumption that “history is ending” shaped the decision and strategies of countless politicians for highly questionable results. I additionally heard many leaders saying that “being positive” would be enough to achieve ambitious goals when past data proved that these goals were impossible to meet.

Ignoring history is like ignoring what is happening behind us while driving. A guaranteed way to have an accident!

Finally, the current pace of communication and innovation means that change is constant. A consequence is that we take new things for granted and forget how things were before. In my lifetime I went from watching movies on VHS cassettes to using DVDs, to streaming them online. Today, I can easily watch any movie in any language at any time. However, 25 years ago, I was restricted to the titles available on shelves at the back of my bedroom. Innovation also brought in a slate of challenges around storing and archiving digital media too. It is easy to forget history, when history can’t be preserved in the first place.

What happens when history is lost

A lot! At best, it will be a lack of awareness of a situation or an organisation. At worst major misunderstandings or even accidents can and will occur. During my nuclear industry days, someone shared a story with me. One day in 1999 a pipe carrying cooling water to the condenser exploded in Hartlepool power station. The reactor was immediately shut down and the situation quickly brought under control. Afterwards, most personnel on-site were surprised to find where this pipe lay as they thought that it lay on a somewhat different course. It is only through conversations with retired engineers who built the power station that certainly was gained on the trajectory of that pipe. This incident was avoidable if everything had been documented in the first place and by bringing in knowledge retention measures when personnel retired.

In leadership settings, a lack of historical knowledge can result in lacking situational awareness. A leader who knows how and why previous crises happened; or how major challenges were overcome before. Will be much better equipped to tackle these crises and challenges head-on. Being in tune with the historical narrative of their organisation will provide them with tools to face the future with confidence and resilience. Most of today’s geopolitical crises or conflicts have deep historical roots, which need to be appreciated to properly understand and resolve said conflicts. The same applies to crises or challenges in business and it is highly likely that the same problem you might be facing presented itself before in the same manner. Why consequently reinvent the wheel when solutions may be available by looking back at how others solved the problem before?

How leaders can preserve and harness a historical memory

Being curious and asking questions is a good place to start. You will find that a lot of information is available out there by searching for it. Asking questions to colleagues or predecessors who have been around for a long time will provide answers. Focusing on the why is important too. Therefore, leaders keen to understand history shouldn’t necessarily focus on when, but rather on why things happened in a certain way. Facts are important, but dynamic forces which shape facts and decisions are even more important and informative. A common trap when looking back, is to judge past actions and history according to the standards of the present. However, this is deeply wrong and will affect judgement. Why? Because history should always be judged according to the standards of its time.

What kind of secrets will you learn by visiting historical archives?

Preserving and harnessing history finally requires shifting one’s mindset forward into the future along the lines of …

  • “What kind of picture will my successor get about today’s events?”
  • “Will future generations understand what drove my decisions?”
  • “What legacy am I leaving behind?”

These powerful questions provide an opportunity to take a step back and think ahead about the consequences of one’s actions.

Every organisation should keep records of the decisions it made and the rationale surrounding them. Too often meeting minutes focus on follow-up actions, and rarely on the debates surrounding actions and decisions. Unfortunately, this approach means that key nuances are lost in the process.

Once you’ve decided to create detailled records, explore them often. When I was in the nuclear industry, one of our practices was to look at the “week that was”. During a few minutes, we discussed a past event that had happened that same week in a previous year. The exercised focused on learning lessons from this incident and how to prevent it from happening again. Think as to how a similar practice could look in your organisation. Why? Because …

“Knowing history is preparing the future!”

Leave a comment