Characteristic #54: Understanding Relevant History

By | March 22, 2014

[March 22, 2014]  When General Petraeus, as the senior commander in Iraq, introduced his new “Clear, Hold, Build” strategy in late 2006, it was based on several factors; the most important of which was with an analysis and understanding of the history of insurgencies.  Not unlike a senior leader needing the relevant experience in order to be most successful, understanding the relevant history and ability to act on it is germane to the best senior leaders. 

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” – Aldous Huxley

Trojan WarThe value of knowing the history of insurgencies (Indonesia, Columbia, and China in particular) was instrumental in the development of General Petraeus’ strategy.  This strategy required an increase in troop strength to “clear” an area of insurgents and then to “hold” it long enough for the Iraqi government to “build” social and political institutions to address the grievances of the populace. 

In this sense, knowing the history of that which is most pertinent to your organization is one of the keys to separating the good from the best leaders and those who are victorious from those who fail.  Ultimately, knowing the history means that we recognize and can apply the lessons from the past where change was the common theme.  Knowing the relevant history means having an appreciation of this change. 

Senior leaders can gain much from their study of relevant history.  A few are:

  • Learning from others’ mistakes and successes.
  • Building a better way to think by reviewing the decision process of other leaders.
  • Discovering how obstacles and problems were overcome.
  • Knowing how social organizations were changed, leading to either success or failure.
  • Understanding of biases, information shortages, distortions, and defects in processes.
  • Appreciating how systems and ways of thinking worked or did not work.
  • Knowing why leaders, groups, organizations, societies succeed or fail, stabilize or fall into chaos. 

Understanding the relevant history therefore is not just about knowing the facts about what happened and when, but why and under what circumstances those things occurred.  Without a good grasp of this, leaders will never be capable of understanding today, their organization, or their circumstances. 

What I personally look for in knowing history, is what was the leader thinking at the time the decisions had to be made; not so much what the decision was, but how the decision was decided.  It is the deliberate and thoughtful understanding of that thinking that helps us expand our own talents. 

It is also incumbent upon the senior leader to teach, coach, and mentor other organizational leaders, workers, followers on the specifics of the relevant historical record that affects them and supports the strategy.  The senior leader must take that relevant history and education and inform others so that they can implement the strategy. 

General Petraeus’ strategy led to what most of us know as the “Surge.”  The troops that carried it out with their bravery on the battlefield did more for the Iraqis than they will ever know.   The success of the “Surge” exceeded what many of us in combat thought possible at the time. 


[Don’t forget to “Like” the Leader Maker at our Facebook Page.] 


One good read on the subject is: Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq by William R. Polk.



Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.