A historic shot of JFK and his advisers listening to a pentagon briefing

Are you learning the lessons of history?

founder experience management strategy Feb 01, 2022

The philosopher poet George Santayana once wrote, ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ This is perhaps the main lesson of Netflix’s latest docu-behemoth, 9/11 Turning Point. The series is upsetting, enthralling and, ultimately, frustrating. How did the USA and the Western Alliance manage to turn the tragedy of 9/11 into an even greater one, costing the lives of approximately 500,000 people and ruining those of millions more?

Joe Biden has put an abrupt end to what he called America’s Forever Wars, a term taken from an iconic 1970s work of science fiction. But as the Netflix series unfolded, it was clear that this was a misnomer. The defining feature of the war in Afghanistan is not its duration, but that it was an action replay of Vietnam. Nearly every mistake that was made in South East Asia was repeated and enlarged: the questionable strategic logic of intervention; the misunderstanding of the domestic politics, which viewed the conflict in the context of civil war; the reliance on corrupt and unpopular local elites with no legitimacy; the impossible tactical situation of soldiers not being able to tell friend from foe, and facing the prospect of daily ambush; the excessive reliance on destructive military hardware that destroyed civilian infrastructure; the lack of any realistic strategy for victory or exit; the perpetual misinformation from the Government, suggesting goals were being achieved when everyone knew it was getting worse; the gradual loss of the local population’s hearts and minds, making regime change not just acceptable but desirable. Joe Biden is old enough to remember both Vietnam and its lessons. A better term for the latest conflicts would be Foreseeable Disasters.

The tragedy of history is that we don’t learn its lessons. Sometimes we misinterpret them. Sometimes we forget them. But mostly, it is because we were never listening in the first place. What relevance does the past have to an unpredictable future? Quite a lot, as it happens. Founders need to be historians as much as futurists. They must know three different kinds of history.

Firstly, they should have a good historical sense and understood the big lessons of history. Winston Churchill used years of historical training (in his case writing) to help resolve the thousands of tricky dilemmas he faced during the Second World War. By the time he came to lead, he had developed robust strategic clarity, a profound human empathy, and a wide knowledge of tactical opportunities, all of which he used to challenge and inform daily decisions. Founders can equally benefit from all three. But since many are trying to disrupt and reshape society, it makes sense to understand the dynamics that are already in play and have been present for hundreds of years. Cliodynamics is the fascinating new  field that tries to explain macro historical forces using maths. Big data meets history. It’s worth a look, because it is easier to work with powerful historical dynamics rather than fight against them.

Founders also need to know business history. What are the big lessons for the enterprise that they are currently engaged on? These are more recent because only contemporary business history is relevant. Jack Welsh was a business god in his time, but he didn’t create Apple or TikTok. The lessons of business history are codified in hundreds of business books, which all offer variations on the same theme. If you want to succeed, you need to make your business work for you, rather than becoming its slave. You need to build something that people really want, not what you think they do. You need to surround yourself with a team of people more skilled than you. You need a plan for making money, ideally a business model that makes profitability inevitable. You need VC money to take over the world, but not too much too soon, or you will lose control. And you need to pace your growth. Premature scaling is the business equivalent of malignant cancer.

But knowing these lessons is not enough, because you also need to know how to apply them in your chosen sector. Business schools and books make their money by systematising and globalising learnings. Follow our playbook and everyone wins. But it is not possible for everyone to win. If someone wins, everyone else has to lose. Every business is unique and must plot its own path, applying and adapting global insight and learnings to its specific context. It is this act of translation that is key to success, and you will be better at it if you have the benefit of knowing what worked in your space previously.

Finally, founders also need to be corporate historians. They must remember their own business’s history. It is a truism that just because something failed in the past, it does not mean that it won’t succeed in the future. But there is an enormous difference between good ideas that didn’t work the first time that may work a second, and bad ideas that were and always will be terrible. You must remember your good and bad ideas, decisions and outcomes. Be ready to share them, however painful. People will always leave. New staff will join. People will often forget. As a founder you have to do everything you can to fight any loss of ‘corporate memory’, as it represents a dilution of your business’s intellectual capital. One way of doing this is keeping your own journal or, if you are feeling bold, doing your own internal annual report with your leadership team. It pays to look backwards as well as forwards.

Are you really likely to find the time to do any of this? Probably not. You’re busy. We get that. So try to pick up some new habits. Read more history. It’s fun. If you enjoy learning from the lives of others, you will internalise many of the manifold lessons they have to teach us. If you do pitches, always do a win/loss review. And before you do the next pitch, read the last five reviews. These small habits will build up your historical sense over time.

You never want to wake one day and find you have spent 20 years repeating mistakes that were available to you on day one.

Good luck. It won’t be easy, because as Aldous Huxley said, ‘that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.’


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