Is Leadership History?

“No nation had ever before embarked on so resolute an attempt as that of the French in 1789 to break with the past…and to create an unbridgeable gulf between all they had hitherto been and all they now aspired to be.  With this in mind, they took a host of precautions so as to make sure of importing nothing from the past into the new regime, and saddled themselves with all sorts of restrictions in order to differentiate themselves in every possible way from the previous generation; in a word, they spared no pains in their endeavour to obliterate their former selves.”

~Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the French Revolution

Nearly 200 years ago, the French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, underlined an aspect of the French Revolution that helps explain why a host of brilliant minds and strong personalities – one thinks of Mirabeau, Sieyes, Marat, Danton, Robespierre, and even Napoleon – all failed to provide the leadership that might have averted the tragedies that followed.  Tocqueville saw the folly of the radicals who drove events in trying to fulfil a central idea of the Enlightenment by shutting themselves off from history.

Tragically, the modern West is repeating their error, striving for the past half-century at least to bury history, not only by excluding it from schools and universities, but also by inundating an information overloaded society with wave after wave of historical fiction and fictional history.  As a consequence, the knowledge of history in society at large is abysmal. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the past half-century has also seen the emergence of the global leadership crisis in homes, schools, communities, workplaces, and nations.

Leadership is hard to find today.  In international affairs, no one knows what to do about North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar, the decline of Europe, the Disunited States, terrorism, drug trafficking, refugees and illegal immigrants, global financial instability, and any number of other crises.

As far as domestic affairs go, what politician anywhere has real solutions for ever-increasing national debt, the cost, and quality of healthcare, the crisis in education, drug and alcohol abuse and the proliferation of social dysfunction, environmental mismanagement, transport woes, and more? And for all the statistical bravado they may conjure up, how many head honchos in the corporate world have any idea about how to fix the startling rates of disengagement, the hugely expensive and disruptive reality of churn, and the alarming socio-economic implications of the looming automation revolution?

Then consider for a moment the inability of millions of people throughout the West, in the spiteful bedlam of relationship breakdown, to manage their own lives without the mostly questionable advice of so-called ‘experts’. Leadership today is marked only by its absence.  Of course, there is no shortage of misleadership – bosses, bureaucrats, and bullies, tyrants, tricksters, and tormentors – but to find people who understand the human condition and inspire human flourishing, one has to go to the pages of history.  To be sure, given human nature, there are plenty of misleaders there too, but you will also encounter Socrates, Alfred the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and many more.

Leadership is indeed history, not in the modern pejorative sense of being obsolete, but in the true sense of being inseparable from the only source of wisdom that might lift us out of the abyss.  The relationship between the global leadership crisis and the loss of a sense of history is more than merely coincidental; the reality is that leadership is impossible without a sound knowledge of history.

The French Revolution illustrates the point.  It was the great historical watershed that gave rise to a century of political, social, and economic upheaval, an era of global expansion and conquest, the great age of capitalism and the emergence of liberal democracy, as well as the socialist, communist, and anarchist experiments that demanded a very different kind of world order.  And, though science and technology accelerated their seemingly endless progress, human suffering on a large scale persisted in Europe and America, and the rest of the world. The barbarous global conflicts of the 20th century and the specter of nuclear holocaust seemed to signal the end of an era, but the legacy of the French Revolution and the unanswered questions it raised still impact the world of the third millennium.  We have no option but to study it if we really want to make sense of our troubled world of today.  A few fragments illustrate the point.

The causes of the French Revolution give our troubled world much pause for thought.  Government gridlock, reckless deficit spending, and runaway national debt culminated in the bankruptcy of the State.  At the same time, bad harvests and soaring food prices, plus the threat of growing unemployment provoked violent disorder in a population increasingly influenced by bright but reckless intellectuals, and by the success of the American Revolution.  Threatened by a rebellious aristocracy bent on sabotaging all attempts at reform, Louis XVI was forced to convene the States General, the representative council that had not met since 1614.  When the delegates of the Third Estate, representing business and the professions as well as the working class broke away and formed the National Assembly, the revolution was beyond stopping.  And its operating principle quickly became the rule of raw power.

Sound familiar?  In our world of the third millennium, we have people in positions of authority in politics, finance, economic affairs, business, education, healthcare, transport, the community, and everywhere else whose lack of empathy, understanding, and judgment is a direct consequence of their ignorance of history.  Statesmen who know nothing about the Republic of Venice’s long dance of survival with the Ottoman Empire; financial wizards who know nothing about the Great Depression; economists who know nothing about how oligarchic greed destroyed the Roman Republic; educationists who know nothing about the Trivium; psychiatrists ignorant about their patients’ worldviews; and so on.

There are, of course, countless episodes in history with a similar power to expand our understanding of the human condition: The Peloponnesian War; the rise and fall of the Roman Republic; the reign of Alfred the Great; the American Civil War; the rise and fall of the Third Reich; and the life and times of Martin Luther King, are just a few.  Reading a good book on any of those episodes will give a leader expanded knowledge, fresh insights, and more astute discernment in promoting human flourishing. But, of course, history is much more than isolated episodes.  As Thucydides told us: “History is philosophy teaching by examples”, revealing what happens when powerful ideas, the drivers of culture, are translated into practice.  History is, in fact, a vast panorama, providing the essential element of context to any particular era we might read about.  The wider context inevitably enriches one’s grasp of each individual episode.

As Jacques Barzun explained in his book, Begin Here: “The essence of history is continuity, and its main characteristic is combination (often confusion) of acts, hopes, plans, moves, efforts, failures, triumphs, tragedies – all these arising from the behaviour of persons living at a certain time and place.”

Barzun understood the importance of people having a feel for the “logic of events” that only the study of history can provide.  But he noted that logic and rationality do not necessarily imply reasonable behaviour, since human actions are frequently driven by erratic, unpredictable impulses.  However, the student of history is nonetheless enabled to discern how “ambition, revenge, greed, ignorance, hope, habit, idealism, practicality and impracticality interact to produce the results” that we know eventuated.

This logic of events develops a sense of history, a way of understanding that helps one see in all human activity the consequences of human responses to familiar challenges.  History is shaped by human motivation and reveals the often unsettling resemblance between the motives of people in different times and places to our own states of mind. The accumulated experience of humankind that facilitates informed reflection and astute judgment is indispensable for effective leadership.  History does not provide easy answers to our problems or simple templates for human conduct, but it does equip us to think with increasing insight about the trials that confront us.  As Barzun made clear, “…in a civilisation like ours, built on records and continuity, we are willy-nilly the past embodied.  Since this is so, no one can understand himself or the institutions at his disposal without historical information”.

Moreover, it is only through a properly informed sense of history that one is able to empathise with colleagues, clients, and competitors, neighbours, and fellow citizens, and comprehend the complex, captious, and capricious inclinations that beset all human beings.  It is a tragically ignored fact that reading classic literature is essential in developing an insightful understanding of other people, and the empathy that flows from it, but classic literature itself is properly appreciated only when one has the requisite historical background. A sense of history also inoculates one against despair in the face of incipient calamity, and the folly of utopian fantasies, two common intellectual maladies that have reached epidemic proportions in the postmodern West.  Doom and gloom and wishful thinking are barriers to human endeavour, and we always need the antidote of a well-nourished sense of history.



Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Thank you Andre for an excellent and thought provoking essay – a must read for any person who is concerned about the future and the impact that the neo-Marxist culture / philosophy has on the psyche of modern man. The danger of modern man becoming historically illiterate spells catastrophic consequences for the future. History plays such a huge part of our character development – we as human beings cannot understand our place in the world without an understanding of the role that history played in the past and a vision of ourselves as part of this larger story. If we do know what happened in the past,
    we run the risk of becoming small-minded, arrogant, self-sufficient, and eventually self- destructive – not only a physical destruction, but rather a complete loss of identity, purpose, and meaning – a state of mind that resists the lessons from history. Thanks Again Andre

  2. Great article, Andre – insights worthy of the thinkers you’ve quoted. Barzun’s concept of continuity of history is a particularly sage riposte to the Post Modern excesses of epistemic historical discontinuity – a major source of those “utopian fantasies” you warn against.

    • Thank you Evan. There is a great deal to admire in Barzun’s books. Wish I could have been a student in the classes he ran in conjunction with Lionel Trilling.

  3. Andre,
    Thank you for encouraging us to seriously think about history and its connection with true leadership. We have fallen into a predictable cultural malaise where Roman bread and circus has been replaced by pizza, sports and media.
    Thanks also for the recommended books. I will start reading some that I have missed.