Where do leaders learn their skills and find inspiration? Do they work away, locked in an office, until inspiration strikes? It should go without saying that project managers need leadership skills.
To a large degree, leaders are those who build on lessons learned from the past. German philosopher Georg Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
That’s an excellent warning. Like most generalisations, there are exceptions. Learning from history and those who have gone before you is an indispensable leadership tool.
Great leaders build on the accomplishments of those who came before them. If you lead a large organisation — a company, a country or a church — it is vital that you understand that organisation’s rhythms and nature before you assume a leadership role.
I think of leaders broadly to include those with ambitions to grow and make greater contributions. If you imagine that leadership is limited to the C-Suite, you will constantly miss opportunities to grow your skills.
In this article, I will share insights from leaders in science and politics. We will see that every leader builds on the contributions of others. You really don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You do need to be observant and identify the right opportunities.
Isaac Newton: Creating A Scientific Revolution
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. – Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke in 1676 (age 34)
Newton is rightly considered one of the giants of science. His work on gravity, calculus and other fields permanently changed the world of physics and mathematics. Of course, he also had a number of unusual interests such as alchemy and unusual religious speculations. That just makes him more interesting to me!
Newton drew on several insights from the past. From the Crusades, many Europeans learned about algebra, Arabic numbers and other mathematical advances. Without these conceptual tools, it is difficult to imagine Newton building even more sophisticated mathematics.
Newton also actively participated in scientific organisations. From 1703 to 1727, he served as President of the Royal Society, Britain’s preeminent scientific organisation. His participation in the Society also provided opportunities to learn about new ideas before they reached wide circulation.
- Seek out peers who are open to discussing new ideas. That feedback is essential to your growth.
- Newton was an active member of the Royal Society — a leading professional organisation of his time. Professional organisations are an important way to grow your skills. Large organisations such as the Project Management Institute offer in person events, publications, courses and other opportunities.
Winston Churchill: Inspired By Family Traditions of Leadership
Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others. – Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill is a fascinating leader. I’ve written before about how to Lead Like Winston Churchill. There’s a reason that new biographies come out about him every few years — he is deeply fascinating.
Building on the contributions of others is a key ingredient to Churchill’s success. Growing up, he had the advantage of a father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who had a long political career.
In fact, Churchill published a biography of his father in 1906, long before he assumed a leadership role. Clearly, Churchill benefited from studying his father’s example.
Churchill’s study of his family continued in later years. During the 1930s when Churchill was excluded from high office, he published a multi-volume biography of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), who played a key role during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The Churchill Centre describes the biography in these terms:
As you read this great biography you will realise where much of Churchill’s World War II thought and rhetoric came from. The same themes are there: unity through alliance, death to continental tyrants.
- What can you learn from your family to improve your leadership? If you are following in a family tradition, then there are plenty of ideas to consider.
- In the 1930s, many thought that Churchill’s political career was over. Yet he continued to serve in the House of Commons and write books to refine his ideas. When you face a setback, exclusion from a major project, or miss a promotion, look for opportunities to bide your times and develop your skills.
Have you studied your own history or your organisation’s history? What lessons can you learn? What mistakes can you avoid repeating?
Creative Commons image courtesy Norma Desmond.