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Learning Leadership Lessons from History: Recognizing Repeating Patterns and Recurring Themes

Five Ways Leaders Benefit from Understanding the Rhythms of History

In an effort to overcome the challenges of predicting the weather, meteorologists have identified a number of weather patterns, meteorological principles and processes, and various other recurring phases and cycles which, taken together, make weather forecasting an indispensible part of protecting life and property. Similarly, though studies in the social sciences repeatedly reveal the predictability of human behavior; like the weather, human history rarely repeats itself exactly. Yet, as with weather forecasts, there are repeating patterns and recurring themes which allow the steadfast student of history to make wiser and more informed choices. As Mark Twain observed… “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can rhyme.”1 One of the tasks of leadership is to understand these rhythms.

Many of the great political philosophers have alluded to the recurring themes and repeating or growing patterns of history. Plato wrote in The Republic that, “…everything that comes into being must decay. Not even a constitution such as this will last forever. It, too, must face dissolution. And this is how it will be dissolved. All plants that grow in the earth,” Plato continues, “and also all animals that grow upon it, have periods of fruitfulness and barrenness of both soul and body as often as the revolutions complete the circumferences of their circles.”2

In the end, Plato writes, “all forms of government [eventually] destroy themselves by carrying their basic principles to excess.”3

Similarly, Hegel, in his lectures on The Philosophy of History, spoke of a “disturbing historical pattern—the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles.”4 Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses of the perennial “renewal” of civic life and the “restoration” of “wholesome laws.”5 Hobbes identifies the “circular motion of the Sovereign Power.”6 Locke describes the “dissolution of government” and a return to the original body.7

In Politics, Aristotle spoke of different regimes (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) , each of which devolves into its own degenerate form (tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy; respectively) until a revolt is brought on as a result.8 Paraphrasing the great philosopher, President Woodrow Wilson said that Aristotle, “outlined a cycle of degeneracies and revolutions through which, as he conceived, every State of long life was apt to pass.” And “the cycle is completed,” Wilson continues, when “Democracy…loses its early respect for law, its first amiability of mutual concession. It breaks out into license and Anarchy, and none but a Caesar can bring it back to reason and order. The throne is set up again, and a new series of deteriorations and revolutions begins.”9

The record of philosophers pointing to the importance of patterns continues on into modern times. Perhaps most familiar is Karl Marx, who wrote in the beginning of the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”10

Others have written persuasively about the cycle from conqueror to conquered or the rise and fall and rebirth of civilizations.11 Identifying and exploring these historical patterns can prove exceptionally useful in dealing with future scenarios (averting, for example, another Great Depression), perhaps lessening the length or width or depth of the crisis or, in some cases, avoiding catastrophe altogether. In fact, as George Washington argued, this is the whole point. “We should not look back,” he said, “unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”12

Other historians tend toward the investigation of recurring themes or the back-and-forth of the pendulum. Still others prefer the spiral or the upward circular movement of the single helix.

The great presidential historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. writes: “Wise men have remarked on patterns of alternation, of ebb and of flow, in human history. “The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation,” wrote [Ralph Waldo] Emerson in 1841, “are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made… Now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.” Innovation presses ever forward; Conservativism holds ever back. We are reformers spring and summer, in autumn and winter we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night.”13

Despite competing metaphors and differences in time and scope, the central shared idea is that—beyond sheer facts and figures—the study of history reveals important, repeating patterns. And constituting a significant dimension to the study of history is the investigation of these cycles, these vast back-and-forth sweeps of the grand pendulum of old Father Time.

Understanding these cycles can prove an invaluable resource to leaders. Consider a few of the potential advantages:

  1. The study of historical patterns and recurring themes aids understanding.By identifying and investigating these repeating themes, leaders can improve comprehension of the road traveled and enhance understanding and insight for the road ahead. Isaiah Berlin said: “To understand is to perceive patterns.”14 In today’s world we are flooded with facts and information. As we become adept at recognizing patterns—both from the past and the present—we can learn to screen out the mass of data and focus on the facts that matter most.
  2. The study of historical patterns and recurring themes helps to identify direction and improve a leader’s vision. Recognizing the patterns of history can help in detecting the direction and destination of society. And having a sense of the broader movement and direction of society can help to improve a leader’s vision. David Gergen, advisor to five U.S. Presidents, writes: “Nixon was accustomed to measuring time in decades and centuries, so he liked to think about what forces would be at work a decade or century hence. […] His capacity as a visionary exceeds that of other presidents in modern times and was squarely based upon his understanding of history.”15
  3. The study of historical patterns and recurring themes supports planning. An understanding of these cycles can improve preparation and planning and, by offering glimpses of the future, can help to nurture a more proactive mindset. Of course, as George Lucas reminds us through Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars, “impossible to see the future is.”16 Yet, having a more reliable sense of potential or even probable outcomes and future scenarios can help to encourage a productive move toward planning. It is, after all, far more effective to “let our advance worrying,” in the words of Winston Churchill, “become advance thinking and planning.”17
  4. The study of historical patterns and recurring themes enhances perspective-taking and improves strategic thinking.Grasping the repeating or growing patterns of history can also serve to broaden our frame of reference. It can simplify problem solving by helping us to screen out irrelevant or superfluous data and, thereby, focus on key points and defining trends. Moreover, it can serve as a valuable input to decision making, allowing leaders to extrapolate and, thus, more effectively engage in scenario development and systems thinking. In fact, pattern recognition is a key element of strategic thinking.
  5. The study of historical patterns and recurring themes can cultivate intuition and foster confidence.All of these factors can work together to boost courage and confidence and enhance a leader’s sense of having greater control over one’s destiny and the influence of their people. With the broader scope in perspective and a better-grounded and more informed sense of the direction of society, leaders are more trusting of their institution and more apt to operate in a calm and collected manner when dealing with chaos and disorder. Consider, for example, Rudy Giuliani’s handling of the crisis on that fateful day in September 2001. With a decidedly mixed record as a leader, how did he emerge as such a cool, strong and collected leader during such an exceptionally trying time? According to his own account in Leadership, he found a useful parallel in history: Churchill’s leadership during the Battle of Britain.18

It is difficult to overstate the value to leaders of continuously studying history. Developing the ability to recognize the repeating patterns and recurring themes of history is essential to effective leadership. Throughout time, the great leaders of the world have benefited immeasurably from an understanding and deep appreciation of history’s cyclical forces. As leaders rise to greater and greater heights, the more critical this historical perspective is to their leadership.

If democracy fails,
will a new Caesar emerge?

Think, for example, of the failure of our representatives in Washington today. The short-term, short-sighted focus of their leadership has left the entire U.S. Congress at the mercy of big money and corporate power. And, more recently, this same short-term, short-sighted thinking has allowed a small faction of extreme ideological elements in the Tea Party to dictate the terms of America’s future with a kind of political terrorism that makes a contemptuous mockery of reason, of democratic principles and of the very foundations of our republic. With a total lack of appreciation for the frailty of democracy and an evidently blissful ignorance regarding the bloody, violent upheaval that can result when democracy fails (witness Germany circa 1933)—both eminently apparent from even a cursory reading of history—our leaders slink further and further into the deep, dark, sordid pit of political and financial idolatry, worshipping powerful corporate interests who alone hold the morally unimaginable means and will to ensure their short-term reelection and, thus, our long-term collective destruction.

Yet, the opposite is also true. Consider the genius of America’s Constitutional Framers who were all well-steeped in history. A great part of their legacy, among the many lessons in leadership they bequeathed to us, is a government grounded in the hard fought wisdom of history. They remind us that we can learn from the successes and failures of the past. They remind us to look outside of ourselves, beyond our immediate interests and concerns. They remind us of the value of our trips to the mountaintop.

Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, writes: “A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed…It feels an impulsion…this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons.”19 This is the role and responsibility of leaders. Rather than floundering in the muck of short-sighted, disconnected, linear, one-way thinking; leaders must take time to reflect, to seize the big picture, to seek out the recurring themes and repeating patterns of history to make the wisest and most informed choices possible. The future, in the end, depends on our ability to learn from the past.

The leader’s role as a kind of meteorologist of societal storms reaches beyond the recognition of patterns, cycles and themes. It is equally worthwhile to consider the significance of enduring principles and leadership lessons learned.

Continue to Part Four:

“Identifying Key Principles and Leadership Lessons Learned”
Series Outline:

The Political Leader as Master of History
  1. Learning Leadership Lessons from the Heroes of History
  2. In History Lies the Secrets
  3. This Post: Recognizing Repeating Patterns and Recurring Themes
  4. Identifying Key Principles and Leadership Lessons Learned
Application and Exploration
  1. Why is it important for leaders to study history and to have a grasp on the repeating patterns of the past?
  2. Can you think of examples of when and where a particular leader or group of leaders was able to learn from a repeating pattern of history to choose a better course?
  3. What are some ways that we can go about actually studying historical patterns?
  4. What are some recurring themes or repeating patterns that you can think of?
  5. What is challenging about studying patterns and what do you like about it?

"What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun."
-Ecclesiastes 9:1

Notes and Bibliography
  1. Abshire, David M. (2008). A Call to Greatness: Challenging our Next President (Computer Pkgs & Research). New York: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Pg. 7.
  2. Plato (c. 380 B.C. [1992]). Plato: Republic. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Co. Pg. 216.
  3. Durant, Will (1955). “The Greatest Ten Thinkers: A Scholar Places Our Times in the Context of Ideas, Ranking These Minds High.” The Rotarian, February 1955. Pg. 39. (Google Books).
  4. Soros, George (1997). "The Capitalist Threat" Atlantic Monthly, Volume 279, No. 2, February 1997. Pgs. 45-58. Last Accessed: August 8, 2011. The Atlantic.
  5. Machiavell, Niccolo (1883). Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius. Book Three. Translated by Ninian Hill Thomson, M.A. London: Kegan Pal, Trench & Co. Pgs. 332-333. (Google Books).
  6. Hobbes, Thomas; Thucydides, Homer (1840). The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume VI. London: John Bohn. Pg. 418. (Google Books)
  7. Locke, John (1821). Two Treatises of Government. London: Whitmore and Fenn, Charing Cross; and C. Brown. Pgs. 370-371.
  8. Aristotle (1883). The Politics of Aristotle. Translated by J.E.C. Welldon, M.A. London: Macmillan and Co.
  9. Wilson, Woodrow (1889). The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics (Classic Reprint). Boston: D.C. Heath & Co. Pgs. 577-578.
  10. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (2008). The Communist Manifesto (Oxford World's Classics). New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 3. (Google Books)
  11. Sims Jr., John G. (1930). Why History Repeats Itself Or Are We Getting Anywhere. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC. Pg. 8
  12. George Washington.
  13. Schlesinger Jr., Arthur M. (1999). The Cycles of American History. New York: First Mariner Books. Pg. 23.
  14. Berlin, Isaiah (1949 [2000]). The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pg. 129. Full quote: “To understand is to perceive patterns. To offer historical explanations is not merely to describe a succession of events, but to make it intelligible; to make intelligible is to reveal the basic pattern—not one of several possible patterns, but the one unique plan which, by being as it is fulfills only one particular purpose, and consequently is revealed as fitting in a specifiable fashion within the single ‘cosmic’ overall schema which is the goal of the universe, the goal in virtue of which alone it is a universe at all, and not a chaos of unrelated bits and pieces. The more thoroughly the nature of this purpose is understood, and with it the pattern it entails in the various forms of human activity, the more explanatory or illuminating—the ‘deeper’—the activity of the historian will be.”
  15. Gergen, David (2001). Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster. Pg. 42-43.
  16. Lucas, George and Hales, Jonathan (2001). “Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones.” Screenplay. Last Accessed: August 8, 2011.
  17. Safire, William and Safir, Leonard (1990). Leadership. New York: Simon and Schuster. Pg. 217.
  18. Giuliani, Rudolph W. (2002). Leadership. New York: Hyperion. Pg. 295.
  19. Bach, Richard (1977). Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. New York: Dell Publishing, Random House. Pg. 119.

"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past;
for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.
This arises from the fact that they are produced by men
who ever have been, and ever shall be,
animated by the same passions,
and thus they necessarily have
the same results.
—Niccolò Machiavelli



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