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Proving once again, I am not above using a shameless pop culture reference with “Back to the Future” to drive traffic! What I really want to talk about is not the great movie trilogy (well, at least the first one was great) but rather, leveraging the past to change the future.

About 100 years ago, George Santayana penned his oft repeated line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This phrase has been quoted (and misquoted) over the last century. Using three vignettes from history, let’s explore the past for some lessons we can use as leaders to shape our future.

Benjamin Harrison & Theodore Roosevelt: The Center and Edge

leadership, business, history

In 1888 Benjamin Harrison was running for President of the United States. A young up-and-comer, Theodore Roosevelt, was canvassing the midwest, feverishly campaigning for Harrison. After Harrison won the election and became our 23rd President, he appointed Roosevelt to serve on the Civil Service Commission.

A rather ironic appointment, wouldn’t you say? Why ironic, you ask? Well, the mission of the Civil Service Commission was to stamp our cronyism and ensure government employees were hired based on their merits rather than by quid pro quo appointments.

Wanting to prove to the country he was his own man, Roosevelt started his work to clean up the federal government in, of all places, Indianapolis, Indiana, Benjamin Harrison’s own backyard!

Roosevelt continued living on the edge throughout his entire career. Always challenging the status quo, always pushing the envelope. While this did not win many fans with the party bosses, who oft times were targets, it did make him one of the most popular presidents in history.

When you think of living life on the edge, what images come to mind? Bleeding edge? Cutting edge? Edge of the earth? Each of these conjure up the dangers associated with the “edge”.

leadership, business, historyI’d like to give you a new image to consider for living on the edge. Many of you who know me, know I am a river rat. I would rather be canoeing a river than doing just about anything else on the planet. A technique for making your way downstream in turbulent waters is to use the eddies, those calm areas of water that form behind an obstruction. A canoeist or kayaker can enter the eddy, rest, regather, regroup, and scout the river ahead.

Using the eddies is not without its dangers, however. Entering and exiting the eddy can be challenging. The line (eddy line) or edge that forms between the fast flowing water of the main channel and the calm, still waters of the eddy can be difficult to navigate. One has to attack the edge at just the right angle to enter the eddy. When ready to proceed, one again has to attack the edge with confidence to re-enter the river.

Roosevelt knew when he need to recharge and regroup, but he also knew to make progress and to make change, as a leader, you have to attack the edge!

George Marshall & Dwight D. Eisenhower: Train for the Future

leadership, business, history

It was early in the 1940’s and history was about to repeat itself. Europe was already engulfed in war and it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would get involved. Over the last several months, the U.S. built its fighting force. From a peacetime corp, the military ranks swelled to 1.4 million soldiers.

The few remaining veterans were comfortable re-fighting World War I. However, Nazi Germany had done in four months with it’s predecessor had not done in four years…seize all of Europe. Marshall knew these new soldiers would need to be trained before the U.S. entered the fray. To accomplish this training he ordered war games to take place in Louisiana, known to history has the Louisiana Maneuvers.

With that order, more than 500,000 soldiers descended upon Louisiana and some other southern states. But Marshall was doing more than just training the troops. He was looking for leaders. He was looking for leaders that could demonstrate a new approach, not just use the same tired techniques because they “worked in the past”. In short, he was looking for Colonels who could be Generals.

leadership, business, history31 of the 42 Division Commanders were replaced during or after the Louisiana Maneuvers. Among those new leaders? Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Business has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. What worked in the past will not work today. Business is changing at an ever increasing pace. What works today will not work in the future. We need new skills, we need new processes. Will the next generation of leaders be ready? Can we help them see the future? Can we help them see the new skills? Can we help them be ready to lead their teams?

Like Marshall, we have to train for the future!

Lewis and Clark & Thomas Jefferson

leadership, business, history(You knew they’d be in here somewhere, didn’t you?)

It was 1806. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had departed from St. Louis almost three years prior. They had traveled about five or six thousand miles by boat, by foot, by canoe. They had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Teton Sioux, nearly froze to death in the harsh winters, survived temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, and had to eat their horses to survive starvation in the Rocky Mountains. Now, finally on their way back home to “those United States” they were stuck. The snow on the mountains was too deep to cross. They returned to the Nez Perce villages and waited….almost two months.

During this time they developed a new plan for their return trip.  Over the course of the journey the Captains had learned some facts that Jefferson could not have known. Armed with this new information they had a choice. They could wait…return to civilization…provide the information to Jefferson…ask him what to do, then carry out his instructions. Or, they could take a risk! Based on their knowledge of Jefferson, their knowledge of the new facts, and an understanding of the goals of the mission…they decided to split into four groups.

leadership, business, historyPretty significant risk, wouldn’t you say? Dividing what was already a small Corps into four smaller teams and heading out into the still very much unknown? Call it taking risks, call it taking initiative. To be a leader, we have to know when to take these types of educated risks. History does not tell us about Jefferson’s reaction to this risk, nor do we know the “what ifs”. The decision could have lead to untold catastrophes. How would Jefferson have reacted if their journals had been destroyed, or if they had lost some of the precious discoveries, or if some of them had been killed? As leaders, not only do we have to be willing to take risks, but we have to provide an environment and a culture for our employees, leaders and future leaders, to be able to take risks, to be able to fail, and to be able to succeed.

Progress and Change

The worlds of business and technology are changing at an ever accelerating pace. We as leaders need to understand where we have been, as well as, see where we are going. We must become comfortable living on the edge, or risk being sucked into the whirlpool of the status quo. We must train our teams and our leaders for the future. What worked in the past will not work in the days ahead. We must also know when to take educated risks and provide an environment that empowers our teams to take risks, lest we leave significant “discoveries” on the table.

History can and does repeat itself, regardless of the lessons learned. Armed with your knowledge of the past, how will you make progress by changing the future? Let’s revisit Mr. Santayana and his quote…in context:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This post is derived from a talk by the same name given for Sparks Tech. View the video here.

 

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Jeff blogs on a variety of platforms:
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Life, Family, Love, Leadership and History:  Rivers of Thought
Leadership and Leadership Development:  People Development Magazine

OK, before you movie buffs tell me “Marty McFly never met Theodore Roosevelt, much less paddle a river with anyone!” Keep your pants on for a minute, I can explain.

#rooseveltriver, history, leadershipFor those of you who have lived in a cave for the last 25 years, Marty McFly is the lead character in the movie trilogy “Back to the Future”.  Marty is transported back in time in a Delorean from 1985 to 1955. (Holy crap, do you realize in Back to the Future II, Marty travels 30 years into the future to 2015, that, my friends, is less than six months away!) While in 1955, Marty changes the course of history and his life, by inadvertently preventing his mom and dad from having their first kiss, and interrupting their density (sic). He then spends the rest of the movie trying to fix history before (his) time runs out.

That moment, that kiss, was an “event angle”, a moment in time where you and you alone stand at a crossroads, faced with a decision, life will be dramatically different depending on the choice you make at that moment. Even without Marty’s intercession, George could have chickened out and never kissed Lorraine. Lorraine could have slapped him for an unwanted advance. We are all faced with these “event angles” in our lives, major decision points that present themselves to us. This might be a marriage, a divorce, birth of a child, death of spouse, a new job, or perhaps a termination from a job. The decisions we make at these times say a lot about who we are as people, and who we are as leaders.

Teddy Roosevelt was faced with such an “event angle” in 1912 (no it did not involve a kiss!). He had just lost the presidential election to Woodrow Wilson (by a large margin I might add). He was quoted as saying that defeat was either Bull Run or Waterloo, only time would tell. Interesting choice of words. Bull Run one of the earliest battles of the Civil War and Waterloo, the war that brought an end to Napoleon’s rein. Two diverging meanings. The beginning of a long struggle, or the end of power. I think the most telling part of Roosevelt’s quote, was “only time will tell”. He was giving up, he was leaving it up to fate. Gone was the bravado he was so famous for exhibiting, he was…defeated.

Like so many “event angles” in life, Roosevelt had put himself in this position by conscious decisions. He had left the presidency

#rooseveltriver, history, leadership

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, 1912 Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

in 1908. Taft, his chosen successor, had won the election. Roosevelt, now an international rock star went on an extended tour of Europe. Taft, however, was not Roosevelt. Roosevelt began to disagree publicly with Taft’s policies. As election time drew near, he began to contemplate another presidential run, eventually throwing his hat in the ring for the Republican Nomination and destroying his friendship with Taft in the process. Taft prevailed. Roosevelt could have seen the signs, instead he chose to run as a 3rd party candidate, in essence splitting the vote and giving the election to Wilson. Couldn’t he see this coming? Didn’t he see his popularity had waned during his European Tour? Was he so filled with hubris that he felt he could not be beat? And, what of his relationship with Taft. They had been very close. They would never speak again.

What can we learn from Roosevelt? What can learn from McFly? Many times in life, we will find ourselves at a crossroads, at an “event angle”. Rarely does life put us there at random. Usually we are there because of decisions and actions we made previously. While we cannot predict the future, we should consider the future consequences when plotting our courses. Had Marty not gone to meet Doc in 1985, he would not have been transported back to 1955 and changed the course of history. Had Roosevelt not decided to run for another term, he would not have destroyed his friendship, Wilson might not have won the election, and who knows the impact Roosevelt could have had in Europe as the world plummeted towards war.

We must also recognize “event angles” for what they are, major decisions that will change the course of our businesses and even our lives. We cannot do as Roosevelt did and “let time tell”. What if Roosevelt had seen this loss as an opportunity, dare I say, a victory? When we are faced with “event angles”, we can choose the way those decisions impact us. Even if the “event angle” is forced up us by life (divorce, death of a loved one, termination of a job), we can choose how we react to those events. We can take the path of Roosevelt and give up in the face of defeat, or we can choose to live on, lead on, and to make an impact.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to grab some popcorn, my best gal and watch “Back to the Future”…again!

#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. To read more in this series, select “Roosevelt River” from the Category drop down on the right. 

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

OK, before you movie buffs tell me “Marty McFly never met Theodore Roosevelt, much less paddle a river with anyone!” Keep your pants on for a minute, I can explain.

#rooseveltriver, history, leadershipFor those of you who have lived in a cave for the last 25 years, Marty McFly is the lead character in the movie trilogy “Back to the Future”.  Marty is transported back in time in a Delorean from 1985 to 1955. (Holy crap, do you realize in Back to the Future II, Marty travels 30 years into the future to 2015, that, my friends, is less than six months away!) While in 1955, Marty changes the course of history and his life, by inadvertently preventing his mom and dad from having their first kiss, and interrupting their density (sic). He then spends the rest of the movie trying to fix history before (his) time runs out.

That moment, that kiss, was an “event angle”, a moment in time where you and you alone stand at a crossroads, faced with a decision, life will be dramatically different depending on the choice you make at that moment. Even without Marty’s intercession, George could have chickened out and never kissed Lorraine. Lorraine could have slapped him for an unwanted advance. We are all faced with these “event angles” in our lives, major decision points that present themselves to us. This might be a marriage, a divorce, birth of a child, death of spouse, a new job, or perhaps a termination from a job. The decisions we make at these times say a lot about who we are as people, and who we are as leaders.

Teddy Roosevelt was faced with such an “event angle” in 1912 (no it did not involve a kiss!). He had just lost the presidential election to Woodrow Wilson (by a large margin I might add). He was quoted as saying that defeat was either Bull Run or Waterloo, only time would tell. Interesting choice of words. Bull Run one of the earliest battles of the Civil War and Waterloo, the war that brought an end to Napoleon’s rein. Two diverging meanings. The beginning of a long struggle, or the end of power. I think the most telling part of Roosevelt’s quote, was “only time will tell”. He was giving up, he was leaving it up to fate. Gone was the bravado he was so famous for exhibiting, he was…defeated.

Like so many “event angles” in life, Roosevelt had put himself in this position by conscious decisions. He had left the presidency

#rooseveltriver, history, leadership

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, 1912 Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

in 1908. Taft, his chosen successor, had won the election. Roosevelt, now an international rock star went on an extended tour of Europe. Taft, however, was not Roosevelt. Roosevelt began to disagree publicly with Taft’s policies. As election time drew near, he began to contemplate another presidential run, eventually throwing his hat in the ring for the Republican Nomination and destroying his friendship with Taft in the process. Taft prevailed. Roosevelt could have seen the signs, instead he chose to run as a 3rd party candidate, in essence splitting the vote and giving the election to Wilson. Couldn’t he see this coming? Didn’t he see his popularity had waned during his European Tour? Was he so filled with hubris that he felt he could not be beat? And, what of his relationship with Taft. They had been very close. They would never speak again.

What can we learn from Roosevelt? What can learn from McFly? Many times in life, we will find ourselves at a crossroads, at an “event angle”. Rarely does life put us there at random. Usually we are there because of decisions and actions we made previously. While we cannot predict the future, we should consider the future consequences when plotting our courses. Had Marty not gone to meet Doc in 1985, he would not have been transported back to 1955 and changed the course of history. Had Roosevelt not decided to run for another term, he would not have destroyed his friendship, Wilson might not have won the election, and who knows the impact Roosevelt could have had in Europe as the world plummeted towards war.

We must also recognize “event angles” for what they are, major decisions that will change the course of our businesses and even our lives. We cannot do as Roosevelt did and “let time tell”. What if Roosevelt had seen this loss as an opportunity, dare I say, a victory? When we are faced with “event angles”, we can choose the way those decisions impact us. Even if the “event angle” is forced up us by life (divorce, death of a loved one, termination of a job), we can choose how we react to those events. We can take the path of Roosevelt and give up in the face of defeat, or we can choose to live on, lead on, and to make an impact.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to grab some popcorn, my best gal and watch “Back to the Future”…again!

#RooseveltRiver is my year long exploration with Dan Miller of Historical Solutions into leadership using the backdrop of history and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. To read more in this series, select “Roosevelt River” from the Category drop down on the right. 

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.