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June 12, 2002

Knowledge Of History Helps Secure Executive Success

By Jim Leverette & Randy Neal

Let me introduce you to the most substantial phrase ever written in the English language. It’s from a rather vexing conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

It’s almost as if Carroll anticipated the modern business realm, where executives toss around phrases such as “knowledge management,” “client-based,” “cost-centered,” “quality vector,” and “future-proof” without a hint of sarcasm, mockery, or anything other than insider conceit. The buzzwords mean just what we choose them to mean, and to question their value would be to question the worth of an MBA or corner office.

In other words, the big egg in the sequel to Alice in Wonderland was absolutely correct. We simply don’t know much, so we develop obscure jargon. These buzzwords of inexact definition serve to protect those at the top by legitimizing uncertain answers. Corporate speak hides uncertainty and allows those of mediocre mental capacity to thrive in the executive world. Note how we bounce from trend to trend. We need hefty investments in b2b software; we don’t need hefty investments in b2b. We should make the workplace fun by allowing casual dress and dogs in the office; we must re-emphasize professionalism. Note, too, that when executives sit down to make business decisions, they generally churn out poor choices. In fact, 70 percent of all decisions emanating from offices and boardrooms turn out to be truly bad solutions, according to a survey by the American Management Association. Indeed, a period of recrimination always follows eras of business expansion and deification. Trust-busting and exposes ended the era of laissez faire. Depression and government controls resulted from rapid growth and exuberant speculation. Enron undercut faith in the consulting giants.

History Keeps Coming Back

Yet executives are not detached from an interest in self-improvement. Thousands of success manual titles appear in bookstores every year, and business leaders at all levels flip through them in an earnest search for some kind of edge. This was as true when Ben Franklin penned his autobiography (an early American guide to success in business and in life), when Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows hit the stands in 1925 (the first book to cast Jesus as a businessman), and when How To Win Friends and Influence People topped the charts. The most recent trend in success manuals places historic figures — Attila the Hun, for example — in the big leather executive chair. Authors have mined the life of Elizabeth I for her CEO acumen and examined Winston Churchill as a business leader.

Unfortunately, past experience and current research should temper one’s enthusiasm for this kind of thing. The National Assessment of Education Progress report claimed earlier this year that only 11 percent of high school seniors scored at or above the proficient level in their understanding and use of history. These same underachievers, when planted in offices, will read the aforementioned tomes and act accordingly — much in the same way that 1980s corporate raiders pulled snippets of Sun Tzu out of context, making life miserable for everyone.

That being said, there are many lessons to be learned from a study of history, and it would behoove executives and business leaders to examine the past.

For those who breeze through university survey courses or lightly peruse leadership biographies, this statement may seem bold. But merely recounting a chronology of events, well, that’s not history. No, the study of history, as conducted by professionally trained historians, is a brutal, mind-expanding, skill-building challenge. In one basic graduate school exam, history students had three days to read through several court depositions from the 1690s and then one hour to explain, from these few documents, the changing nature of social relationships in post-Bacon’s Rebellion Virginia. In order to answer that question, the students must first discern the status of the different witnesses, who they were, who they knew, and so on — with nothing to go on but their use of language. Prior to anything else, then, they must learn something of language use in the 17th Century, and of social organization over the period in question. The remainder of the process involves research, thought, and questioning. They must inquire about motivation, accuracy, and every other factor that shapes human sentiment. Finally, they organize their assessment and present their interpretation.

For history — the study of history, rather — is a process of learning to accumulate, interpret, organize, and communicate ideas to a hostile audience. History is a multidisciplinary discipline, a mix of economics, business, technology, sociology, psychology, accounting, communications, marketing, mathematics, science, and so on. It is team building, when most of the team willingly disputes you. It forces you to determine a direction and sell others on its value. It develops the ability to challenge data and ideas. It requires you to think deeply though a problem and then communicate your solution effectively.

In other words, the same stuff an executive does every single day.

Sure, history also provides an extensive databank of examples, leadership guidelines, and role models. The people churning out books touting the CEO skills of historic figures have the right idea. But the lessons mean little without the ability to interpret, for the book itself merely represents an interpretation — perhaps an inaccurate one.

Churchill, for example, rallied a population during a short-term crisis, but never completely convinced the disparate constituencies of his skills beyond the moment. He also allowed his fixation on one region to affect his decision-making process. Ulysses S. Grant, by comparison, was a genius.

Until he reached the White House, that is.

Over the next several months we will examine leadership in greater detail, culling through time for lessons in management, success, employment of technology, personnel decisions, ladder climbing techniques, and so on.

For you see, those who know the past control the future.

Jim Leverette is senior vice president and Randy Neal is managing director of The Broadmoor Group, a Dallas-based global executive search consultancy. You may contact them at