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17 January 2019
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History repeats itself

3 June 2013

Last week, I wrote one of my public holiday frivolity pieces based around the 1950s/60s' TV cowboy series Gunsmoke.

The principle of those shows rang a few bells this week, especially as I also watched re-runs of Star Wars, episodes four and five – similar tales of good versus bad, but taken into the future and to another galaxy.

The lessons of shows such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza stuck with me from childhood. The principle of doing the right thing whatever the odds or the risk to the person may have been presented in a way that we now see as a bit twee, but they are at the heart of leadership. It may have taken me a while before those lessons sank in in terms of real life, but eventually they did.

Something else that I’ve read over the past week is an unattributed quote, along the lines of: “If we have virtue, we don’t need laws” and that resonated, too. If you think back to the basic social unit of a village or an itinerant tribe, they didn’t need too many rules – they would just sort things out among themselves.

To a large degree, that was the England that I grew up in, too, for everyone in the village knew everyone else and anti-social behaviour got you into trouble – often double trouble if your parents found out. That isn’t to say that we, as kids, didn’t push our luck because we did. It’s how you work out where the boundaries are and, like making mistakes, you have to cross the line sometimes, but the way that you are dealt with teaches you as much as learning from your errors.

I’ve written before here on the subject of taking responsibility for your own actions and this is something that, for the moment, we seem to have lost sight of. We live in a litigious society where we always want someone else to blame even when we have contributed in some way to our misfortune.  We have become obsessed with having rights when, in reality, we should be entitled to nothing other than that which we earn.

This is one of the reasons that I have always loved history for there is so much there that we can learn from and good leaders over the millennia all have the same basic traits. In good leaders, I include the ones who were leading the wrong way – that is, the leaders of groups doing bad things.

There are those who say that history is really biography and there is some truth in that, but is doesn’t detract from the essential lessons that you can learn from those stories, whether fact or fiction. From the stories in religious works through cowboy tales and to science fiction, you will find tales of good versus bad and of civilisations that rise and fall.

Of course, there are dangers in focusing solely on history. One of the worst things for me to hear is “we tried that and it didn’t work”. History is just one facet of a leadership toolkit and good leaders will rightly only use it when they need to.

I use the term good leaders because not all leaders will become great ones. Only a few in any generation achieve that status, but there is no shame in that for it is much better to be a good leader than a poor one.

So if you have leadership aspirations or just have leadership thrust upon you, think back to the stories that inspired you in your youth. There could be more there than you think.

John Bowen is an FM consultant