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On June 13, 2o17 I was honored to be the headliner for Sparks Talk’s Fifth Anniversary. The transcript of this timed-talk follows. 

It’s 1780, August. You are a young Shawnee teen. Early in the afternoon you climb up the ridge east of the village and look down across the valley. The summer sun beats down relentlessly on the  village. The air is still, smoke from smoldering cooking fires creates a cloud throughout the clearing and tickles your nostrils as you breathe. Along the base of the hill, several small cabins form a circle. To the east a stockade sits atop the next hill. Fields of corn stretch for miles in each direction along the lazy river.

Some of the younger children play in the dirt near several of the cabins. Mothers keep a watchful eye while they go about their chores in preparation for the evening meal.

A dog wanders between the cabins, its tongue drooping from its mouth as it pants.  It enters the cool shade of a doorway, only to reemerge a second later with a yelp as one of the men inside swats at it so the council meeting is not disturbed.

Inside the cabin, the men are engaged in a great debate. The sound of their voices drift up along with the smoke.

You see motion in the corn…you see the flash before you…Crack! The sound of gunfire shatters the afternoon stillness.  Soon war cries filled the air from the west of the village. The long knives have arrived! The smell of burnt gunpowder mixed with the smoke of the fires and burns your eyes.

Why I was standing in a park in the middle of Ohio reading an historical marker on July 4, 2000 is a story for another day. What we are going to explore today are the connections. The connections that drew me to the past and propelled me into the future.

The sign I was reading was in a park dedicated to the Battle of Piqua. A battle between the Kentucky militia led by George Rogers Clark against a tribe of the Shawnee nation. What boy from Indiana doesn’t feel a connection to George Rogers Clark?

I read more of the markers. One was dedicated in 1976. I graduated high school in 1976. Connection.

A Shawnee boy survived the battle. His name was Tecumseh. I attended Camp Tecumseh YMCA camp as a kid. Connection.

Tecumseh grew up and along with his brother, The Prophet, led the Indian forces in the The Battle of Tippecanoe near Lafayette against the US forces led by William Henry Harrison. In 1976 I graduated from…William Henry Harrison High School…connection. The name of our school newspaper? The Prophet! Connection!

I hated history class in high school…and now I was hooked. Over the next decade, Carmen and I would spend every minute of vacation retracing the Lewis and Clark Expedition. You see, Clark was the younger brother of George Rogers Clark. We discovered dozens and dozens of connections. We discovered a deep love for our country, and we discovered a shared love of history. In a sense, newlyweds when we embarked on these journeys, we discovered each other. Ah, but I’m not here to talk about our love story either, for that, you have to wait until my book “The Lewis and Clark Will Never Die Tour” is published!

All these connections are interesting…and we could talk about them all night…well, for another 6 minutes or so. But, what if I could show you how you could use those connections with the past to live in the present and plan for the future? Now THAT would be really interesting!

For the last five years, did you catch that connection? Five years…same time Sparks was launching. I told you connections with the past are everywhere, anyway, five years ago, I started working with an executive coach. Dr. Dan Miller’s approach to coaching is something he calls Creative Conversations. Through these conversations we study the life, or river as Dan calls them, of an historical figure and discuss points in their lives and how they relate to a problem or a challenge I am wrestling with today.

Over this time span, we have studied Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, William Sherman and Abraham Lincoln, albeit briefly. One of the interesting aspects of immersing yourself in history this way is the number of connections you will discover. Now I know those connections were always there, the study just raised your awareness of them.

When we embarked on our exploration of the Roosevelt River, our theme was Communication, Speaking Truth to Authority and Creating an Environment of Candor. The struggle to speak truth to authority was deeply ingrained. I grew up the son of a baptist minister. Children of the minister were to be seen and not heard, you certainly didn’t speak truth to his authority, especially when his authority was HIS authority!

Roosevelt ALWAYS spoke truth to authority. For him it seemed to come naturally. The lessons over the year were endless. However,, one the stuck out for me was his use of gestures. He was a master at using a gesture to make his point. I realized my dad, was a master of using gestures in his sermons. In some ways I adopted my favorite gesture of his, that of getting out from behind the podium and walking about to engage the audience. However, the key lesson here wasn’t the gesture itself, it was when to NOT use the familiar gesture to make a point. To stop walking around the platform and stop, freeze, and make a point.

As my career progressed and I began to be seen as a leader not just of my team, or even of my company, but in the community, this leadership in a new stage need exploration. Enter Dwight D. Eisenhower and the exploration of adapting to new issues and working with different stakeholders. What better model to use than the military man that rose through the ranks to become the leader of the Allied Forces in WWII and then on to the presidency. Moving from a command and control organization to one of politics and influence.

As Eisenhower established his leadership he saw a connection to two seemingly unrelated advances in warfare. This first was the mechanization of, well, just about everything. The Cavalries of WWI were a thing of the past, but unlike horses, jeeps and trucks need fuel. He leveraged that in his battle plans both for his forces and against the enemy. At the same time aircraft became a strategic part of warfare. Eisenhower was able to see the relationship between the two in a way few others did. For me, as an IT leader, it was about the cloud. But not the cloud alone, it was what it could bring when it was joined with organization agility. Together the two can have a multiplying effect. Look for the relationships in the seemingly unrelated!

Our final example come from the life of William T. Sherman, the civil war general. William Tecumseh Sherman…see how I did that? Connections! The theme we explored is “A Plan is a Contract between the past and the future”. Sherman had a plan. Sherman had a grand plan. His plan didn’t always work. He learned, he adjusted, and ultimately succeeded.

Sherman was involved in two battles near the town of Chickasaw Bluffs. In the first he suffered an embarrassing defeat. Some time later, he and Grant attacked the forces at Chickasaw Bluffs and were successful. Grant had used a strategy Sherman thought would never work. He saw, he learned and he acknowledged. We need to support and observe other leaders and other strategies, and adapt our plans for the future.

These are but a few of the lessons of the last five years. Connections to the past are all around us. Lessons from the past out boundless, and ever changing. Even now as I write this, I see new insights, new lessons, and opportunities to impact the future. As you look back over the last five years, over the last 50 years, 100 years, longer, what connections reveal themselves? What lessons are there to be learned in the present to plan for the future?

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:
Business related topics:  LinkedIn
IT and the role of the CIO:  Intel’s IT Peer Network
Life, Family, Love, Leadership and History:  Rivers of Thought
Leadership and Leadership Development:  People Development Magazine