Elevating Leaders Series: Leadership & History

I’m not a historian nor a history buff, but I am a student of history and greatly respect what historians offer us – especially where leadership is concerned. History is the résumé of mankind; it qualifies the things that we do. Practically speaking, history teaches us experientially and anecdotally. History increases our capacity to know things. Because of history, humans today have access to millennia of knowledge. Consider a student using the Pythagorean Theorem. Pythagoras pioneered the theorem nearly 2,500 years ago; and today, a student can employ the knowledge. Without history, our capacity to know things would be far smaller and be limited to what a single person can know in a lifetime. Now, consider how that can inform our leadership.

Empirically, leadership doesn’t quite have the same clear-cut history associated with other disciplines like math, the arts, sports, etc. That doesn’t make leadership, as a discipline, less valid, though; history proves that. I don’t mean to be too esoteric here, but according to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (2017), humans have been walking upright for about 1.9 million years (para. 2). That means leadership has existed roughly as long in spite of not being as precisely defined as other disciplines. Where there are humans, there is leadership. Just like we evolve, so too does leadership. 

I mean, that’s great and all, but what does history actually teach us about leadership?

Yet another great question! To answer, I’m going to highlight authors of leadership from history briefly. This won’t be a comprehensive list (not now anyway), but rather a short and sweet digest of the authors that I think are important to the history of leadership:

  1. Sun Tzu: A Fifth-Century BCE Chinese General and military strategist who authored the world-renowned Art of War (Spilling, 2012). While the text is written for warfighters and battlefield commanders, any leader can glean the insights the text offers and adapt them for any enterprise or endeavor. Here are two great insights that I think are worth noting:
    • “There are five pitfalls that may ensnare a general: reckless disregard for death will indeed result in death; too much regard for life will result in capture; a quick temper can be provoked into rash action; a misplaced sense of honour brings only shame; over-solicitude for the men just causes needless trouble and anxiety. These five are the common failings of generals and are disastrous in their effect on the successful conduct of war. When an army is defeated and its general slain, look no further than these five for the cause. They demand study.” (p. 54)
    • “You must bring your troops together with humane treatment, and bind them with discipline – this is the path to invincibility. Enact consistency in orders and instruction and the men will be loyal to you; if there is no consistency, they will not. It is of mutual benefit to general and men to maintain this consistency.” (p. 54)
  2. Niccolo Machiavelli: A Fifteenth-Century aristocrat and political writer who was ousted from his seat of power and exiled from which he penned The Prince. Although The Prince is a notorious commentary and how-to guide on political deceit and sovereign entitlement, it offers a unique view of leadership and what NOT to do. I will address Machiavelli more in a later post addressing leading through fear. Deceit aside, Machiavelli did makes some solid points, especially in this gem of a statement:
    • “There is no way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”
  3. Thomas Carlyle: A Scottish philosopher and satirist who popularized The Great Man Theory (GMT) in the Nineteenth Century. He is one of the driving forces behind the reason so many believe that leaders are born. That sentence might clue you into the fact that I’m not a huge supporter of GMT, but I’m not trying to convince you, I’m just simply reflecting. More on GMT later as well.
  4. Peter Northouse: Perhaps the most widely known and academically followed leadership scholar of the Twentieth Century. He has written numerous editions of textbooks as well as articles and journals consolidating theories into digestible bites. He’s not the best writer in my opinion, but his breadth of work is undeniable. 

You gave me a list of people and descriptions – how does that help my leadership?

This is where that “leading is learning” piece comes in. History provides us the luxury of learning from the experience of others. We can use the knowledge of so many leaders that had led before we had the opportunity in order to inform our decisions and our leadership styles. My philosophy is: get smart before you get started. There is so much knowledge out there to be consumed to help us, why would we do otherwise?

A quick nugget of advice: simply reading about leaders and leadership won’t instantly make you a better leader. You – and by you, I mean we – have to take some time to reflect on the leadership that we read in order to underwrite what we know and what we think we know. Leadership is learning, and learning requires reflection.

Okay, that wraps up my take on leadership and history. Get out there and find knowledge that best compliments your desired growth, be it classical, contemporary, or otherwise!


  1. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. (2017). Retrieved from https://naturalhistory.si.edu/
  2. Spilling, M. (Ed.). (2012). The art of war: a new translation. London, NI: Amber.

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