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Leadership and L&D Lessons From History

Bob Little 

June 8, 2018

“The more you know about the past, the more prepared you are for the future.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

History can teach us a great deal, if only we pay attention to it. After all, it’s only by looking back on our mistakes that we can avoid them and improve.

But what can history teach us about L&D?

The First Ever L&D Guru?

The Roman agricultural writer, Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella, is often cited as the first modern L&D thinker. His tract on agriculture, “De re rustica,” written in the first century, set out a proposal for increasing productivity by fostering worker loyalty and obedience. This stood in stark contrast to the favored management approach of the time, which was to rule by fear.

Columella recognized that people tended to respond better to empathy, encouragement and empowerment than they did to threats of punishment. So instead he recommended the introduction of “family-friendly” measures. Sick workers, for example, should have proper care. Their homes should have natural light, and they should have good quality work clothes in which to perform their duties. He was even one of the first to suggest regular consultations or one-on-ones with workers.

But, some 20 centuries later, such enlightened management practices still appear far from widespread. Workers continue to be ruled by fear. Fear of failure, for example, or of demotion, lack of opportunity and progression.

Yet we know that happier workers tend to perform better and are often more productive. Companies that invest in their people’s professional development have lower turnover rates and staff absenteeism. They also have good reputations, which helps them to attract and retain top talent.

Other Progressive Leadership Theorists From History

Some commentators argue that “De re rustica” may not be the first ever leadership manual, as once thought. They point to texts such as “Tao Te Ching” by Lao-Tzu and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Both texts – written over 2,000 years ago – outline the principles of leadership and strategy.

Lao-Tzu’s theory, for instance, espouses many of the tenets of transformational leadership. He believes that effective leadership is dependent on three key factors: simplicity, patience and compassion. He explains further, “In thinking, keep it simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy.” He also highlights the importance of building trust with your workers: “If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.”

Meanwhile, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which dates back to the fifth century BC, continues to remain one of the most influential strategy texts. The Chinese military strategist was famed for his ability to win battles. But – for him – it’s not the size of your army that matters, it’s how you lead it.

Sun Tzu outlined several other key principles for effective leadership, among them “leading by example,” treating your people with compassion, and believing in yourself.

Open to Interpretation

So, why then, if these lessons from history are nothing new, are so many businesses still failing to apply them?

Richard Lowe, Hewlett Rand’s director of training, explains that it’s all to do with interpretation, “Humans had been using printing skills – in China – for 600 years before the 15th century saw the invention of the printing press, in Germany. These skills – and subsequent refinements to ‘knowledge transfer technology’ – have helped to make knowledge increasingly widely available.

“But others have used these same skills and technologies to spread disinformation as propaganda or ‘fake news.’ This counteracts or, at least confounds, some of the benefits of spreading the lessons of history.”

Leadership coach, Hugo Heij, however, takes the view that it’s simply easier to ignore such lessons than to put them into practice, “History has lots to teach us – so why aren’t we learning these lessons? We all know 15 minutes of exercise each day keeps us healthier but we don’t do it – because it’s easier not to. It’s the same with learning the lessons of history.

“As an L&D professional, it’s easy to get distracted by new models and technologies – but we should ensure we understand and apply the basics,” he says.


Are there any leadership lessons from history that you treasure? What are they? And, how have you applied them in your career?

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