History and Leadership: What History Can Tell Us About Leadership

History and leadership

History and leadership have an exciting connection. How does history influence today’s leaders? History teaches us what yesterday’s leaders did and how we can apply those principles today. Our ancestors have a treasure trove of knowledge to share with us. We owe it to them to read what they wrote.

For example, how did we advance in aeronautics? We looked to the Wright Brothers for their designs to build better planes. What about understanding business prowess? We exemplified Steve Jobs, John D. Rockefeller, or Henry Ford. Regardless of the controversial practices these and others employed, these people and others changed the course of history through their life’s work.

Can we learn from people like Jobs, Rockefeller, and Ford? What about other people? Being a student of history will serve any leader in any capacity. Here’s what history can tell us about leadership.

history and leadership

Photo by Pixabay

History Highlights Best Practices

I was watching a show about why the Titanic became a disaster. There were many reasons, but two stood out to me. One issue with the doomed ship was that The Titanic did not have enough lifeboats. And, the ship left port without having conducted proper safety drills (Savage, 2015).

How did this change future emergency procedures? For one, luxury ships like the Titanic were required to have lifeboats that would carry the entire passenger body and crew. Second, deck crews were required to conduct safety drills.

Now, we see these routinely: airplanes, boats, and even trains have their own safety procedures. Whether it’s required or not, these are a factor of daily life.

We learned from The Titanic, and we’ll continue to learn from other mishaps as well.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”-George Santayana. Spanish Philosopher and novelist. 1863-1952

History Illuminates Comparisons

Jared Diamond’s book Upheaval compares several countries to each other by understanding how they handled crises in their respective countries. Through comparison, Diamond articulated how well one country overcame its issues while others could not solve a similar problem.

Case in point, Diamond talks about Chile’s ex-military dictator Agusto Pinochet who ruled Chile for over 30 years. Throughout those years, Pinochet caused great economic prosperity for Chile and severe civil rights abuses. His reign came to an end after a Chilean vote of either “yes” to keep Pinochet or “no” to make him step down.

Compare Pinochet to other dictators like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, who also ran their countries. Understanding the similarities and differences in a comparison model illuminates new ideas and opens other theories to explore.

I enjoyed comparing U.S. history to that of other countries or continents because it shows me that other countries may have solved problems in the past that the U.S. is currently facing. It’s a humbling experience.

history and leadership

Photo by Marianna

History Helps To Avoid Making The Same Mistakes

Consider Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed mission to take Russia. Then, what happened to Adolf Hitler? He also tried to conquer Russia and failed. What about Afghanistan? How many have gone to the “graveyard of nations” only to come out more bruised than before?

Former Marine Corps General, James Mattis, advocated this point in his book Call Sign Chaos. Mattis’ approach to the battlefield began with an extensive historical study of his environment. For instance, when he was a battalion commander during Desert Storm, he tailored his reading list to desert warfare.

In a way, we write our own histories. We’re encouraged to journal about our lives. We write letters to loved ones before passing away in hopes that they take your deathbed advice. We hope that one day our posterity won’t make the same mistakes we made in life.

history and leadership

Photo by Alex Azabache

History Provides Insight to Different Solutions

History and leadership are two sides to the same coin. Think about the inventions of the past. We don’t have Fred Flintstones rock wheels on conventional cars anymore. What about our cell phones? What advances have those had throughout the past two decades?

These ideas started with previous problems. Improvements are essential to daily living, and studying the past can facilitate a modern solution.

Someone had to ask, how can I make a home video viewing a better experience? Thus, the DVD was born, or the Blu Ray, and projectors…History shows problems and solutions, just like we experience every day. Combined with new technology, innovators develop better products or solutions through the lens of the past.

The same applies to leadership and people. For example, Russia hasn’t attacked Finland since the Winter War in 1939. Russia learned that the Finnish people made it too costly to attack a neighboring country. Similarly, as leaders study these experiences, they apply portions of solutions that worked in the past to today. The more you explore, the more comparisons you can make toward modern-day solutions.


As a leader, you need to study. Otherwise, you’re behind. Find ways to engage in discussion with peers, mentors, and leaders so you can find resolutions to the issues you face. The more you study, the easier it will be to make connections and propose innovative solutions.

Don’t get worried about being too “book smart.” Sometimes, you don’t always get the experiences you want. But, you can read about those same experiences and learn from those successes and failures.

Admittedly, I am a “book smart” person. But I learn and apply principles I learned from books to current situations. It would be a shame to do the opposite.

How do you study history? Do you think that studying history is an excellent way to build a good leadership foundation? Let me know in the comments section down below. Thanks for reading!

Books Mentioned

Upheaval by Jared Diamond. Read a review here.

Call Sign Chaos by James Mattis. Read a review here.

Photo Credit:

Featured Image: Samuel Karl

1: Pixabay

2: Marianna

3: Alex Azabache


Savage, Mandy. “Five Safety Lessons Learned from the Sinking of the Titanic.” EHS Today. 14 April 2015. Paragraphs five and six. link to the webpage


10 thoughts on “History and Leadership: What History Can Tell Us About Leadership”

  1. I really enjoyed this post Robert! Back in high school I had a good friend who firmly believed that history repeats itself and that it is vital that we all learn from the mistakes of past civilizations. This post reminded me of my friend’s “lectures” and how I definitely should study more history.

    1. Alejandro,
      I appreciate your personal experience! History does repeat itself if we let it. We must be good students of the past to help us with future solutions. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Hi Robert,

    I love coming to your articles and this is another inspiration. I could not agree more that history highlights best leadership practices, but it also provides lessons that we must learn from.

    We walk a lot about embracing failures and mistakes of our own, but as leaders we must also embrace the failures and mistakes of past leaders. Most importantly, we must learn from those failures and mistakes and keep moving forward towards our goals.

    Leaders are readers and the term; “learn something new every day” is absolutely right for leaders. Leaders are learners and we must be constantly learning new and better ways to influence our people. History is a great way to help us do this and help us look into the future.

    Thank you for sharing and keep up the amazing work.

    All the best,


    1. Tom,

      I love your comments! You’re right, embracing failures and mistakes is part of leadership. Those, in turn, can help others if we choose to record that history. Thanks for your comment!


  3. I enjoyed reading your article, Robert! Thank you very much!
    For me, history has always been an exciting subject, already in school. I don’t look at history to analyze leadership, but more about the past and the country’s development. It is fascinating, and I love to visit historical places and museums.
    But I never have seen history as a study for leadership, so I have learned a lot from your post.
    Napoleon and Hitler both couldn’t overcome Russia because Russia did use the same strategy of withdrawal in winter, which has changed world history. Stalin has used the same tactic.
    I once met an older man who has survived Stalingrad, and we talked about his experiences, so expressive and so sad;
    horrible dictators who have written history.

    1. Sylvia,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, history has seen its fair share of atrocity. This is why leaders must learn to study the past and apply it to the present. Thank you for your comment!


  4. Hi Robert,

    Great and appreciate your effort!

    The inspirational article, I love the fact how history still lives within this world and continues to teach us in every aspects be it learning form the mistakes of past civilizations.

    I agree with leaders are learners they influence people by how they demonstrate themselves, to constantly learn, try to bring something new so people get motivated and I feel this is what makes an ideal leader.

    I totally enjoyed reading your article and truly amazed how you compared history and some great leaders to spread a message that we must embrace our mistakes, learn and explore new opportunities to live a meaningful life.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Post