What historian David McCullough’s new book can teach Idaho business leaders

A scene from a commercial for a vehicle with Volkswagen’s TDI Clean Diesel engine. For years, the company aired TV spots using terms such as miraculous to describe the cars seemingly too-good-to-be-true balance of peppy acceleration, 40-mile-per-gallon gas mileage and low greenhouse gas emissions. The company later admitted it had cheated on U.S. emissions laws. Biesecker, Michael YouTube via AP

I seem to be quoting The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan a lot these days. A few weeks ago, she had an excellent column suggesting that leaders need to think more like artists than economists. This past week she reviewed a collection of speeches by the historian David McCullough, who has much to offer leaders of any type of organization.

McCullough’s book, “The American Spirit,” argues that history is a “larger way of looking at life.” His focus is on how politicians can use history, but I think it can help business leaders too.

Here are some of the keys from McCullough’s book that Noonan mentions:

History is a story, about people. I grew up thinking of history as a collection of dates and facts. Historians say, instead, that it explains how and why people behave as they do. I’ve come to think of it as a layperson’s guide to psychology, providing context, actions and consequences that we can learn from without having to live through them. Think about what we’ve learned by watching Sheryl Sandberg go from a regular business leader to one who inspires women and now, people who grieve.

People in history were living in their own “present,” even as we see them in “the past.” We live our lives in the present, without the benefit of hindsight (until whatever we do is over). It’s the same for historical characters. They were living, deciding and acting in their own “present.” Similarly, decisions made today about why, what, and how to educate, compete, or invent can have far reaching impacts. By learning about how historical figures analyzed, considered and then made decisions that had consequences known to us now, perhaps we can be better at informing ourselves before acting. 

Nothing is — or was — guaranteed. The actions people in history took were, as I mentioned, in their “present.” They could have taken other steps and the results could have been very different. The same holds true today. Leaders typically cannot do an experiment, testing one decision against another, but rather must make decisions in their own way, using what information they choose to assess. Thus, the results of a decision can spin out in a number of ways. Good leaders, of course, do try to consider what those various outcomes could be as they weigh the decisions. But nothing is guaranteed.

History exposes hubris. Arrogance is too often a danger for people in power. History shows us that hubris can lead, ultimately, to an inability to see what’s happening in reality. As Shakespeare’s King Lear found, giving in to flattery, or being unwilling to listen to bad news, can lead to one’s own downfall as well as an organization’s, which brings VW or Wells Fargo to mind.

Perhaps one of your summer reads should be a great history book.

Read more here.