I have heard it said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” I do not think that is particularly accurate. Perhaps there are overarching cycles that may repeat themselves. They are undoubtedly based on human nature and, therefore, have little chance of being changed any time soon.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
We are tribal animals and therefore respond to our environment in predictable ways. For example, if you aren’t in
my tribe, I view you with suspicion. You are not trustworthy. Modern humans typically belong to several tribes. You are most trustworthy if you join me at the intersection of several of those groups.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
“No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
War is one of those overarching themes in our history. It seems that we never learn from our war experiences and so are doomed to be continuously at war somewhere in the world.
We Cannot Repeat History
Wars do not start for the same reasons. We, therefore, think we can justify a particular new conflict because it’s “different.” We claim that the people involved are not the same as in any other war. We believe the economics are different today. We believe the attack on our values has changed.
I am sure all of that is true. And that is why I believe whether we study history or not, we cannot, technically, repeat it. That is not to say that we cannot learn what the overarching truths might be. In the war example, what has been the final achievement of armed conflict? Has it been the same for each engagement? What are the unintended consequences?
We know that technology has changed the way we execute war today. We understand that the enemy doesn’t stand and fight, but engages in insurgent tactics. Perhaps most dramatic is that future wars will not be armed conflict involving humans, but cyber warfare and armed autonomous machines.
I believe that leadership in modern times must be forward-looking, using the past only to understand long economic and institutional cycles. Our world is changing rapidly. Heraclitus also said, “Panta rhei”—Everything flows. While human nature changes slowly, our environment changes at an accelerating pace. It is our own doing, of course. We have created the technology that is causing rapid change, and we must not only keep pace but plan on this trend continuing.
One of the lessons we can learn from history, which does apply to today, is that humans will always be inventing and moving things forward. We will always look to make our lives more comfortable. And there will always be unintended consequences.
As leaders, I believe it is our job to learn the lessons of the past that are applicable, recognize history cannot repeat itself, and keep our organizations moving forward. Nostalgic, inaccurate memories of the past will impede adaptation to a changing environment. Darwin taught us that it is those who are adaptable that survive. Those who do not change will most likely become extinct.
The present pandemic has forced change on individuals and organizations. Some of the changes will be permanent and require us to adapt. Our task as leaders is to guide our companies through the changes necessary to survive and thrive in whatever economy awaits us on the other side of this disruption.