Nowadays, if you read interviews of any top business people in any news media you will invariably see a question that asks which book they have recently read or are currently reading. And their obvious answers will be the names of some newfangled management book like why the moon is still round while the earth is going flat, or the fifteenth leadership habit of a maverick, or some new cutting-edge book about managing people, or even some fancy novel. But you will never hear any businessman say they are reading an ordinary book like a medieval or ancient history textbook.
Now, you may argue how a boring textbook on history help a businessperson can run his or her business. Besides, who has the time to read history, and who cares if some Attila the Hun plundered a village in the fourth century or some king was beheaded by his courtiers? And why bother with what has been over and forgotten, and what is the justification to study something that is unconnected with modern business issues? After all, every modern guru preaches the need to look into the future and not look at the past. Common convincing arguments, but you may be surprised to know that reading and understanding history actually has immense business benefits. Hidden inside history lies an immense wealth of advice and real case studies that can not only help every businessman but practically everyone whether connected with a business or not. But a history book will not help any businessman if read in the traditional way of simply memorizing events, dates, names, etc., intended to just pass an exam. In order to extract business gold from history, you need to read it from a completely different angle. And that angle is to concentrate on what mistakes our forefathers did and how you can avoid them. If you had thought that history was just a boring school subject that must be tolerated only until you pass that dreadful exam, just look at the points in its favor below.
1. There is a common saying that history repeats itself. This is proved by the fact that one of the biggest mistakes people do is constantly repeating the mistakes that others did. And people suffer because they ignore and avoid history. People easily fall into the same black holes that others fell a short while ago. Or they confidently predict the future while experimenting with a sugar-coated plan that our forefathers burnt their hands with. This is because people are unable or unwilling to read the warning signs of history readily visible all over the place. However, if you ignore or avoid history you end up repeating the exact mistakes your forefathers or predecessors did along with almost identical and disastrous results. But if you read history, it can give you hundreds of years of great wisdom and examples to learn from, especially what to avoid rather than what to experiment and repeat.
2. Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.’ This has proved to be true for centuries and will prove to be true forever. Except in obvious areas like technology, medicine, scientific research, etc., there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to managing people. But most businessmen and B-school gurus think they have discovered a revolutionary new management concept fresh out of the oven on how people can be managed. Unfortunately, they do not realize that a similar or identical one would have been experimented elsewhere because they did not bother to read history. The human behavioral patterns of what is going on right now would have definitely occurred somewhere in the past.
3. History is not really some useless stuff as most people think. History prevents you from reinventing the wheel. Albert Einstein once said, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Throughout history, people have committed the same mistakes of trying to subdue people, wage wars, commit treachery, and various forms of atrocities on each other leading to the same guaranteed disastrous results as experienced earlier. Modern man is no different and even today you see dictators and cruel people ruling many countries and organizations. And similar crimes and follies occur inside workplaces with equivalent disastrous results. Hence, it’s highly necessary to read history as it teaches the current generation to understand things that don’t work or never worked in the past. If you can understand history in the right perspective, it can help the present business managements and executives to avoid needless and futile experimentation with people management. By learning the patterns of events in history, you can recognize the repeat of the same patterns in what is going on around you today.
4. History will not tell you where you are going, but it will tell you how you got there. What you did in the past decided the present, and what you do now will later decide the future. History offers a wealth of information about how people, societies, and even civilizations behave. History can teach you some great lessons in people management like the mistakes our ancestors did, the disastrous consequences, the fall from grace of mighty leaders and dictators, and many great ups and downs. History is splattered with examples of bad people management and its disastrous results. Many kings have been assassinated due to their bad people management by the very people they trusted. For example, Julius Caesar was stabbed by his trusted friend Brutus. Many have been beheaded for their follies. Wars have started due to abuse, criticism, and harassment. Applied to business organizations make the same mistakes again and again, but disguise it as newer or modern management theories and learning experiences. But by reading and understanding history you can avoid repeating the same mistakes again and again. History helps you look at both the past and future at once. And you can constantly educate yourself from those who were born earlier than you and become like Janus, the Roman god who had two heads back to back to look into the future and the past at the same time.
5. History helps create good businesspeople and professionals, though it may not exactly define a specific job profile in the corporate world. But by studying the global past it gives one the knowledge and flexibility required in many work situations. For example, you can develop good research skills and use historical examples to design modern business plans. For example, the wisdom of Aristotle or Socrates told centuries ago are still valid for many business success and failures. Knowledge of history is an asset for a variety of work and professional situations in modern global context. History helps in identifying, understanding and avoiding cultural sensitivities. It provides evidence about how nations have interacted with other countries and societies in the past, and how that long-standing enmity or friendship between the countries can affect business.
Finally, we can conclude this chapter with a great quote on history from Winston Churchill, ‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’