What History Teaches

Whenever I hear of someone heading off to college who is planning to major in History my thoughts always go to “oh boy, taking on a ton of student loan debt for a low paying teaching job.”

I mean, what else do you do with a History Degree.

But then I start to think more and I am so grateful for anyone willing to teach History. It is history that teaches us everything we need to know to be successful.

In High School my least favorite class was Military History. (I attended a Military High School) I had a hard time figuring out why we were studying old battle plans and tactics from lost battles. I eventually came to understand that if we were ever required to lead a group of brave service members into battle the job wasn’t just to win the war. It was to bring the people we were charged with leading home alive.

As General George Patton frequently said, “it’s not the job of the American Solider to die for their country; the job of the American Solider is to make the other SOB die for theirs.”

Small pieces of historical knowledge can make a huge difference. It can prevent history from repeating itself. If Adolf Hitler had studied Napoleon’s battle plans from years earlier he likely would have not opened up a second front in Russia. If he had waited only a handful of months to attack it is very possible the outcome of World War 2 could have been different.

Companies are like countries when it comes to history. Those that are unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Emphasis on the doomed.

History can teach us what to do as well as what not to do. The problem is, if we don’t learn from history we tend to take the same shortcuts. Use the same level of thinking, say the same things, and do the identical stuff as the people who failed before us.

It’s fine to study successful companies. Following the practices of those who have succeeded before you makes perfect sense. But I also like to learn from companies that were highly successful right up until the time they weren’t.

I want to know what changed. I want to know what it was that caused them to go from great to good to downright bad.

It most often has to do with people. Mostly the people who run the company. History teaches us that the most common mistake they make is assuming that their future is an automatic extension of their past. Those organizations believe that because they are currently successful they will always be successful. They begin to take their success for granted. They begin to believe that their success is solely due to their efforts. They forget about all the people who have helped them along the way.

Successful companies and organizations do not fail the people leading them. The people leading them fail their companies and organizations.

History is full of examples of how organizations create sustainable success. It is also full of examples of what organizations did to kill their success.

Successful people learn from their mistakes, the most successful people, and organizations, learn from the mistakes of others. Those “lessons” are found in history. Are you willing to learn?

How Important is Control to a Leader?

Many people in Leadership positions believe leading is about control. Especially controlling the people they are supposed to be leading. People in leadership positions who don’t actually lead are really struggling with this great corporate experiment happening around the world that is called “Working from Home.”

Because they don’t actually lead they have little influence over the actions and attitudes of the people they are supposed to be leading. They have so few leadership skills that rather than attempt to earn the commitment of their people they seek to force their compliance.

But compliance requires control and that’s much harder to come by in a work from home environment. That’s why “leaders in title” only have so many issues with their people not being in the office and directly under their thumb. They can’t wait for a return to “normal.”

But they will have to wait because working from home is the new normal. The pretend leaders who hope to order their people back into the office have one of two choices. The first is to grow into an Authentic Leader and actually lead. The second is to join the growing heap of failed “leaders in title” only who couldn’t let go of the need to control every aspect of their employees workday.

People will eventually return to the office, in some form. Likely they will spend at least as much time working from home as working in an office environment. There will never be a time when rush hours look like the rush hours of “the before times.” There will never again be a time when large companies pile a few hundred employees into a large conference room simply because they can. Things will never again be exactly as they were.

This work from home experiment has been going on long enough that real data exists regarding productivity concerns. Most people are either as productive or more productive than when working in the office. In many cases where productivity has suffered it has suffered due to the “leader in title.” They attempt to reach through the phone or computer to control their people as if they were still in the office.

The people who are actually led while working from home seem to do just fine.

There was a time when “work-life balance” was the goal. That goal is gone. The new goal is “work-life integration” where employees have choices about when they get their work done. “Work-life integration” means the employees can run an errand in the middle of the day. It means they don’t have to make up some cockamamie excuse about why they didn’t immediately answer the phone.

“Work-life balance” is full of controls. “Work-life integration” focuses on positive outcomes. It eliminates the need for many of the tradition controls.

Here’s the deal…Authentic Leaders already know they control far fewer things than they thought they would before they became leaders. They have also learned they don’t have to control anyone to earn their commitment.

Control is unnecessary for an Authentic Leader. They have influence into the attitude, activities, and outcomes of each member of their organization. If you’re in a leadership position and your struggling with the “work from home” thing then it’s very possible that you’re trying to control things…and people beyond your control.

Stop trying to control people and start building relationships with them. It’s those relationships, built on trust, that will allow you to influence your people to productivity heights that control freaks can only dream of.

Authentic Followership

Your title may sound impressive. Your title may come with a substantial income. Your title may gain you entry into elite places and even get you VIP treatment in some of those places. 

 

But what your title doesn’t do is make you a leader. 

 

All the same things can be said about the position you hold within your organization. Even positions at the very top of an organization aren’t truly leadership positions unless the person who occupies the position makes the effort required to lead. 

 

People don’t follow positions or titles. People follow people. 

 

The absolute number one leadership mistake a person can make is believing that their title or position makes them a leader. Titles and positions can make you a boss but only authentic followers can make you a leader. 

 

What I mean by “authentic follower” is a person who is committed to you personally. They realize that you care about them and have their interests in mind with just about every decision you make. 

 

An inauthentic follower is someone below or behind you in the organization that “complies” with your directives. They only comply because they fear the consequences if they don’t. You might believe they are following but when you need them you turn around and see that they aren’t really there.

 

If you’re someone who has the audacity to label themselves a leader then their lack of commitment is on you, not them. Perhaps you believed they “had” to follow you because you hold a position above them in the organization. 

 

That belief is likely the second biggest leadership mistake a person can make. NO ONE can be forced to follow you. Authentic Followership requires a commitment on the part of the follower AND the leader. You can’t force anyone to commit to you. 

 

If you want Authentic Followership then you’ll need to practice Authentic Leadership. That means demonstrating that you care about your people. That means keeping your lines of communication open and crystal clear. It means understanding that you’re responsible not only for your own success but for the success of the people you lead as well.

 

If you’re an Authentic Leader you’re even more excited when one of your followers excel than you are when you excel yourself. If you’re an Authentic Leader you have a vision to share with potential followers. That vision includes benefits for those who become Authentic Followers. 

 

If you’re an Authentic Leader there is little doubt that you have Authentic Followers. When you count on your title or position to earn you followers then it may appear as if you’re leading but when you turn around you’ll see there is nobody there.


If you’re wondering if you’re an Authentic Leader there is an easy way to find out….ask the people you think are following you. If they struggle to provide you with ready answers then it’s likely you have some work left to do. You will need to change your ways if you want to add Authentic Leader to whatever title you’ve been using to gain the compliance of your people. 

The Look of Leadership

I was in a conversation with a colleague a while back and the discussion was about the relative leadership abilities of two individuals. We clearly had differing opinions of these two people and my colleague said it was obvious which one was the better leader. They said one looked much more like a leader than the other.

 

I think I know some stuff about leadership. We can debate all day long whether that is true or not but this much I will acknowledge without a doubt; I have no idea what a leader looks like. 

 

I have seen leaders of every shape, size and color. I’ve seen both men and women who were tremendous leaders. I’ve seen many people who never held a true leadership position who were nonetheless outstanding leaders. 

 

Leaders come from all walks of life. They come from every country, every economic level and every so called social level. A great education doesn’t make a person a leader anymore than a lack of formal education limits someone’s potential to lead.

 

Too many people get fooled by what they believe is the “look” of leadership. You know the look; they dress appropriate for their position. The say the right stuff. They are always politically correct. They smile a lot and compliment the people above them in the organization. 

 

It should be pointed out that many great leaders indeed have that exact look….but many do not. It also must be pointed out that having that look most certainly does not make a person a leader. Many people with that “look” are nothing more than a mirage of leadership. 

 

That’s why I don’t invest much time looking at a person to determine if they are in fact a leader. I look at the people they claim to lead. 

 

A managed person who will do what they are told and if they are not told to do something then it is likely that is what they will do, nothing. A person who is led will do so much more. They not only do more they think more, they take more risks, they are more engaged, they care more, they ARE more. 

 

A person who is managed will seldom reach their potential. A person who is led well will reach their potential and then push past it to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. 

 

The “look” of Authentic Leadership and especially Authentic Servant Leadership, is not found by looking at the leader. It is found by looking at the people they lead. 


Using appearance as a criteria for leadership is beyond silly. Yet it happens across organizations big and small every day. Don’t make that mistake, leaders produce favorable results, in themselves and in their people. Throughout history this simple fact has always remained true: if there is no result then there is no leader. 

The Most Important Characteristic of Leadership

I have long held that the most vital characteristic of leadership is integrity. Other’s including some who I greatly respect would say the most important characteristic of leadership is good judgment. 

 

I have a hard time admitting I could be wrong about this. It does seem though that lots of people are willing to sacrifice integrity for what they think is judgment that more closely resembles their own. 

 

But it is beginning to appear that those who believe judgment to be the most crucial leadership characteristic may be mistaken as well. That’s because empathy seems to be increasing in importance. 

 

There are currently 462 million variations of the definition of leadership on Google. No matter which one you prefer they all have something to do with people. The definitions say something about motivating, encouraging, teaching, challenging, or building people. They talk about caring and making a difference in the lives of the people you lead. 

 

Every definition of leadership indicates that empathy is a critical characteristic. Perhaps even THE critical characteristic for successful leadership. 

 

There is a great line near the beginning of the all time classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the scene where Clarence the Angel is getting his instructions from Joseph. Clarence is in a hurry to get to earth. He wants to earn his wings by helping George Bailey who is played by the great Jimmy Stewart. But Joseph tells Clarence to stop long enough to learn something about George’s life. Joseph says that if he is going to help George he needs to know something about him.

 

So it is with leadership. 

 

If you’re going to lead others, motivate and coach them, challenge them and make a difference for them then you’re going to have to know something about them. You’re also going to need to be able to see their life from their point of view. 

 

That’s empathy!

 

Empathy grows in importance as technology continues to push the human element out of relationships. If you lose sight of the humanness of the people you’re supposed to lead then you lose the ability to actually lead them at all. 

 

So what is the most important characteristic of leadership? Here’s the real answer… if you lack integrity then you lack the ability to lead. Without integrity people will not trust you and if they can’t trust you they simply will NOT follow you. 

 

If you have integrity but lack sound judgment then you will be an honest failure but a failure as a leader all the same. If you have no empathy for the people you lead then you’ll likely find that even with integrity and excellent judgment there will be no one following you. People will know that while you may care about them, as you would any “asset” in your organization, you don’t actually care for them. 


I suppose what I’m discovering late in my own leadership journey is that it doesn’t really matter which leadership characteristic is most important. If you struggle with even one of them you’ll have significant challenges when attempting to lead. 

Are you a Role Model?

Well, are you? The short answer, especially if you’re a leader or even just someone in a leadership position, is yes.

     

Your people watch you. No one is born with the knowledge of what it takes to succeed so they must learn it. They learn some of it by listening, some by reading, but mostly they learn from watching. If you are their leader or the person who is above them in a leadership position then it’s you they are watching. You MUST be their model of successful behavior!

     

So you absolutely are a role model. The only question is, do you model behavior that leads to success or do you model behavior that leads to something else. 

     

You can tell your people what to do and they may do it. You can show them and they will likely do it, or you can tell them and show them. If what you said matches what you do they will almost certainly do it.

     

Therein lies the problem for people who are leaders only because they occupy a leadership position. Their words often don’t match their actions. They have yet to learn that their people will do what they do long before they will do what they say. They are also surprised when they eventually learn just how closely they are watched by those who would follow them.

     

Authentic leaders are careful to make certain that their actions match their words. They realize that is the surest way to build trust and credibility and that those two characteristics are vital for leadership.

 

Showing your people what to do however isn’t really enough. Showing them how to do it is key. By “how to do it” I don’t mean how from a technical nature, I mean how in terms of attitude. 

 

You are their attitude model as well. Attitudes are contagious and no attitude is more contagious than the attitude of the leader. You may not appreciate hearing this but if your people appear to have a negative attitude then you must make certain that you are not the source. Maintaining a positive attitude is critical for effective leadership.

     

If your goal as a leader is to build other leaders then your words and actions must match and you must do everything possible to maintain a positive attitude.

     

So, watch what you say and remember, someone else is always watching what you do.

Why Leaders Need Vision

Leaders don’t need 20 20 eyesight to have good vision. What they need is an imagination, an idea of what is possible, and a picture of what the future may hold. 

 

That vision should guide them and motivate them to grow and improve. It should provide hope in the tough times, particularly if their vision includes an understanding of their purpose and the purpose of their organization. 

 

A good vision can show the leader where they and their organization are headed. It will pull the leader past the inevitable roadblocks that pop up within every plan. A true vision provides focus. The vision helps answer every question that could come up. If something gets you closer to your vision you do it, if it doesn’t get you closer to your vision you don’t. Good vision provides clarity for a leader even during the foggiest of times.

 

Good vision helps a leader answer the “why” question that can otherwise place doubts in the leader’s mind. A leader with good vision always has an answer to the “why are we doing this?” and “what’s the point?” questions that can haunt leaders with lesser vision. Particularly when those questions come from naysayers. 

 

Good vision does all that and more for a leader and you know what? It can do all those things for a leader’s people and their organization too. 

 

If.

 

If the leader is effective at casting that vision upon those people and the organization. Since a leader can’t really do much alone they must be able to communicate and “sell” that vision to their people. They must reinforce that vision through their words and actions at every opportunity. 

 

People find it easier to follow a leader when they know where that leader is taking them. They find it much much easier to follow a leader when they know they are included in the vision. 

 

When a leader shares their vision with their people those people become engaged and they stay engaged. When those people buy into the vision they commit to making it happen. When all, or at least the majority of the people within an organization share the same vision that organization is nearly unstoppable. 

 

If you’re leading any type of organization today then you must, must, must develop and share your vision for your people and organization. You must share it soon and you must share it often. You truly cannot over share your vision. 


The alternative to not sharing your vision is… well, we don’t want to go there because that my friends would be a very sad story.