History and Leadership: What History Can Tell Us About Leadership

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

How does history influence today’s leaders? There are several ways to learn from history: through disdain, nostalgia, regret, or understanding. The best way to learn from history is with humility toward a specific issue that someone already solved: through empathy. With access to technology today, it’s easy to access millions of records and books from home.

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 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? There are positive and negative examples of leadership we can study. However, being a student of history will serve any leader in any capacity. Here’s what history can tell us about leadership.

History highlights best practices

People who study history discover routines and patterns. By nature, people are creatures of habit. Past civilizations used these habits to thrive. For example, the Mayas of ancient Mexico surpassed their neighbors in wealth and culture because they were able to adapt to their environment. Their fall also brought forth similar lessons when embracing poor habits.

For example, The Geneva Convention taught western civilizations best practices during conflicts. Even though war is chaotic, the Geneva Convention is a creation of lessons-learned from rich histories such as abandonment of using land mines by western countries, treatment of enemy prisoners of war, and respectful treatment of civilians on the battlefield. I won’t pretend that everyone practices these. It would be naive to think so. However, history has taught a great lesson that total war is damaging to the ravager and the ravaged.

Apart from war, history shows a process. How did farmers harvest their wheat fields in the 1800s? How can that process improve today? Questions like this can be shared when talking about historical points.

History illuminates comparisons

Comparisons are enjoyable to make. Jared Diamond’s book Upheaval compares several countries to each other by how they handled crises in their respective countries. Turbulent as they were, these problems countries had can illuminate current situations and apply the most relevant solution.

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, but also severe civil rights abuses as well. 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 Kim Jong Un, Adolf Hitler, or Benito Mussolini, who also ran their countries. Understanding the similarities and differences in a comparison model illuminates new ideas and theories to explore.

History helps avoid the same problems

I chose the quote at the beginning of this article for a reason. When we decide to dispose of the past, we are risking further damage to ourselves and others. Leaders must learn from those who came before them.

Privileged leadership should not be the sole desire for a leadership role. Think about the downfall of Enron and the Great Recession several years afterward. Leaders shouldn’t sit in ivory towers overseeing operations and forgetting what happened that toppled great companies. Instead, it’s more important for leaders to study now to avoid the problems of their predecessors.

Consider Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed mission to take Russia. Then, what happened to Adolf Hitler? He tried to take Russia, as well. Since Hitler tried to take Russia, there hasn’t been a large-scale operation like Hitler against Russia again. However, Russian aggression still exists against western countries threatening surrounding countries (Russia’s takeover of Crimea from Ukraine). Hopefully, humanity can learn from our current problems because of proper study.

History provides insight into new solutions

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. I remember how frustrated I got when my VHS tape came out of the cartridge, and I couldn’t ever get it to work again.

Someone had to ask, how can I make a home video viewing a better experience? History shows problems and solutions, just like we experience every day. Combined with new technology, innovators develop better products or solutions.

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 can 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.

How do you study history? Do you read, attend conferences, or elsewhere? Let me know in the comments section down below. Thanks for reading!

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

  1. jason says:

    what a great article iv booked marked this for a future reference to look back at, thanks for sharing this information.

    1. Robert says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed my article! Thank you for bookmarking it and for the comment!

  2. Alejandro says:

    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. Robert says:

      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!

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