The Lessons of History and Great Leadership

I enjoy the Great Courses series produced by the Teaching Company. Each course is a series of lectures that I can listen to while working out or in the car. Currently, I am listening to a course entitled The Wisdom of History by Professor J. Rufus Fears at the University of Oklahoma.

The basis of the course is a series of 10 lessons or guideposts that we can learn from history. For our sakes, four of these lessons relate directly to business and business leadership.

1.  We do not learn from history and the consequences of this failure are tragic.

Likewise, individuals and companies do not study business history and learn from the failures of the past. This takes many forms. Companies do not create and follow lessons learned from their own successes and failures. As a result, they make the same mistakes over and over. Further, we occasionally get side-tracked into thinking that there is a new model to doing business – be it the idea that every internet company was going to change the world or that Enron had invented a new-type of asset-lite company or that the banks had found a mathematical way to eliminate risks. Now, think of the current vogue that having 6,000 Facebook friends or 1,200 LinkedIn connections with whom you interact only via E-Mail, Twitter or texting means that you have established useful relationships with these people. In short, the lessons of business history reinforce the importance, nay the necessity, of a focus on the business fundamentals.



2. Power (and the quest for power) is a universal value

Most Americans like to believe that freedom is a universal value. In business, most of us like to believe that doing right for the company and trying to satisfy stakeholders as well as possible is the universal value of senior management. Alas, for too many business executives, it is not the money, but the power that is of utmost importance. You see it daily with empire building, fiefs and turf wars between rivals, promotions that are won solely on political merit, value-destroying acquisitions that take place just to give executives larger empires to rule over.

3.  Great nations (and great companies) rise and fall because of human decisions, not anonymous social or economic forces

In history as in business! The economy is certainly challenging. But, the reason most companies fail is not because of the poor economy. It is because of poor management and leadership which comes from poor decisions made by their leaders. Each of us sees this every day when we deal with once-great companies that are now suffering because of the downturn. Yet, they treat us as customers or consumers with indifference or even neglect. The appalling customer service is not a result of the economy, but poor leadership decisions. In short, as leaders, both political and business, we need to stop blaming and begin to take accountability for finding a way to lead, improve and grow our businesses (and our nation). It is on us.



4.  There is a distinction between a politician and a statesman

In history, a true statesman is someone with bedrock principles, a moral compass, and the ability to build a consensus to achieve a goal or vision. In business, there is likewise a difference between a President or CEO and a true leader. The companies that today are floundering are led by people with titles of President or CEO, who are not leaders. Show me a business executive with these three qualities of a statesman, and you will see him or her at the helm of a company (or business unit) that is either succeeding or that is turning around and on the road to success. Your title of President, Chairman, CEO, or COO does not make you a leader; your personal qualities, principles and actions make you a leader. Alas, throughout the business world today (as well as in the political world), there is one over-riding sentiment:



About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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1 Response to The Lessons of History and Great Leadership

  1. Nice series! My wife and I are going through “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the same company–very well done.

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