Leaders need to be historians…


The former german Chancellor Helmut Schmidt died last week, and Denis Healey a few weeks ago. It is a strange thing when public figures that were so much a part of your most formative years pass away. As a child of the 1950s for me that was very much the 1970s. It is a direct reminder of your own accumulation of years and the reality of our mortality. My first “that can’t be right” moment was when Bobby Moore died in his 50’s about 20 years ago.

There has been a steady flow since.

Sometimes it seems as though the things of the past really are of another country. As though the learning and wisdom of a past time no longer have relevance. The truth for me is the reverse. As Winston Churchill said – “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. 

What is true of the global stage and international affairs is also true in our work places and organisations. That does not mean that the things that failed in the past cannot now succeed, but it does mean that we need to accommodate the learning of the past in our enthusiasm to build the future.

The lives of both Schmidt and Healey were over shadowed by their experiences as soldiers in WW2. His obituary tells us that Schmidt, a soldier in Hitler’s army on the eastern front, was still issuing warnings in his nineties about “the bloody past.” On leadership he said – “It is an enormous piece of art to be a leader, but not to appear a leader,” ….. “It needs feeling in the tips of the fingers.”


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