Does history inform the future?

Life is divided into three terms. The one which was, which is, and which will be. Learn from the past to profit the present; And from the present to live better for the future. It’s the best way to lead yourself through life.” William Wordsworth.

While this seems a great way of looking at life, to what extent DO we learn from the past? Whether it’s through awareness of our genetic make-up, our own personal history, studying the great leaders and campaigns of the past, appreciating the wisdom of decisions taken by previous generations, or honouring the sacrifices made by others before us, how much DO we learn from the past, and why do we need to re-visit the same lessons so often?

The hereditary component of certain illnesses (or the pre-disposition to suffer from them) is increasingly recognised, and genetic counselling is offered to siblings when a brother or sister develops the disease. While some people leap at the opportunity, others say they would rather not know. The arguments on either side are powerful and emotionally charged, but the consequence is that some people prefer not to be told that they might be under threat, not to learn from the past, not to adjust their lifestyle to influence the future.

In a political democracy, long-term strategy and short-term policy are often at odds with one another. Strategy is often based on historical argument and may reflect the colour of the political party promoting them, yet their policies are often driven by the much shorter-term desire to deliver results that will swing the electorate towards them. The result is often a divide between those on the ‘front-benches’ and those on the ‘back’ and again, it is interesting how reluctant some people are to build on the historical perspective when their own survival is threatened, while others are not.

It is said that at one point in the First World War, across a single stretch of no-man’s-land near Ypres, less than 100 yards apart, both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler served. Despite the carnage that they witnessed and the impact it had on them individually, they were clearly able to put this aside in order to lead us into and through the Second World War. Clearly this is an over simplification, but some of us remain amazed that any government can lead its people into armed conflict when we must all know of the human suffering that will ensue, while others feel that the historical precedent is somehow less relevant given the situation they are faced with.

And what of business? An astute observer of business, John Macdonald, wrote a book in the 90s; “Calling a halt to mindless change“. Among many points that he raised was the tendency for business leaders to be driven by short-term targets rather than longer term goals. The short-term focus tends to fragment organisations and reduce personal security, while the longer term builds empires, enhances stability and therefore provides personal security. The short-term approach leads to a more polarised distribution of the proceeds, while the longer term one creates substantially greater per capita wealth. This is not a newly discovered phenomenon, it has been widely observed for over a hundred years, and yet new leaders of organisations frequently make their mark by initiating ‘radical’ change through refocusing, restructuring, rebranding and a host of other approaches. Conversely, there are organisations that insist on recruiting their new leadership from within, where the degree of freedom to initiate change by the leader is restricted, and where the founders’ principles remain stamped through the rock of the business.

Interestingly, these Founders’ were often quite spiritual individuals, though not always and partly as a reflection of their times, but their values generally reflected this in their concern for humanity through employees, customers, suppliers and the environment. All thoroughly modern concepts, of course, and ones we couldn’t possibly have learnt from history!

So some questions to ponder…

  • To what extent do YOU feel you have learned from history? What lessons do you take to your work and how do they influence your behaviour there?
  • Looking at your own organisation, what lessons are there from the past that need to be captured? And, what could be learnt from other organisations?
  • Best wishes

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.