February 8, 2024

Why Thinking Historically is Central to All Business and All Leadership Part 1 (TPL Insights #208)

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Dr. Jeremi Suri’s One Day University Talk entitled “Strategic Thinking and Thinking Big”  

Dr. Jeremi Suri teaches a course called Approaches to Leadership in the Master of Arts in Human Dimensions of Organizations program at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and has written eleven books on corporate leadership, contemporary politics, and foreign policy, most recently Civil War By Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy. His other books include The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office; Henry Kissinger and the American Century; Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama; and Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy . Jeremi is a sought-after advisor to boards and CEOs and is in high demand as a speaker and facilitator of leadership workshops and strategy sessions.  

Jeremi has materially changed the way I think about history as it relates to business, and I am betting that he will change yours. Jeremi asserts that studying history is the only way to become a strategic leader. When I first heard him say that in his talk, “Strategic Thinking and Thinking Big,” I was skeptical. By the time I finished the recording, I was sold.  

Jerimi asserts that historical thinking, along with mathematical, scientific, and artistic thinking, is critical and resides in a part of the brain that most of us fail to exercise. While prior generations received better training in this area, most of us had the high school football coach as our history teacher. I know I did. In addition, most of us are running so fast and caught up in the moment (and the future), that we don’t leverage high quality historical thinking to help us shape our strategic thought processes. Below are three of Jeremi’s strategic imperatives:  

Situate Your Organization  

Strategic leaders never forget that strategy flows from purpose, mission, vision, and values (PMVV). They also think in terms of context. As difficult as it is for most of us to stay focused on PMVV, it is even more difficult to think contextually. The world rewards our specific expertise, so most of us forget about the world around us. Strategic leaders are renaissance people. They understand their neighborhoods, their customers, their competitors, and the broader landscape. 90% of leaders don’t do this. They are so good at what they do, that they lose sight of where they sit in the overall scheme of things.  

Be Ruthlessly Opportunistic  

Strategic leadership focuses on opportunity. Be ruthlessly opportunistic and avoid the traps. Strategic leaders avoid stupid stuff. They don’t try to win every battle. Carl Von Clausewitz is at the center of all military strategy worldwide and wrote the book On War, often thought to be the most studied book in military colleges. Clausewitz says that the smartest generals often run from one battle to fight in one that is more important. Macolm Gladwell made the term “Tipping Points” famous, which is about seizing those rare opportunities to turn a corner, turn something over, or make a huge leap. Changing a culture or dispelling a long-held set of limiting beliefs are examples of how strategic leaders are cognizant about seizing the opportunities that present themselves, while still avoiding the potholes.  

Avoid Distractions   

The third imperative-avoiding distractions-is the most important. Jeremi’s research indicates that we are losing focus by the year. Suri reviewed the daily calendars of every POTUS since FDR and says that the evidence is clear that the most powerful person on earth spends 90% of their time on things that don’t matter. It’s the busyness. We are a culture of busy. The president begins his day with a security briefing on last night’s happenings, often before he gets out of bed. We are all subject to the tyranny of the urgent! We often spend our time focusing on the tasks that demand our attention but that don’t rise to the level of strategic importance.  

Henry Kissinger, who Jeremi interviewed for his book that includes his name said, “The problem in Washington is that people are doing the urgent rather than the important. Strategic leaders have the ability to do the important even when the urgent is pressing.” 

This is Our Lives  

Our intuition and training often tell us that our lives are about straight lines and 2X2 matrices. That is clearly not the case. The obvious choice is not always the best choice-it often lacks context. What often turns things around and allows for breakthrough solutions is stepping back, slowing down, and considering strategic alternatives that expose opportunities. What turned things around for the Allied war effort in World War II was the realization that it was much more efficient, and effective, to go after the enemy’s supplies than to keep trying to move fresh supplies to the front lines.  The trajectory of the war changed when the Allies thought about the war differently. They began to use intelligence more effectively and stopped fighting 19th century warfare. Rather than throwing everything at the enemy’s center, they began to exploit the enemy’s weak points.  

Thinking historically could have saved us from making many strategic mistakes in foreign policy. The Vietnam war was one in which we killed more enemy and won more battles but failed to realize the war’s objectives. We didn’t examine the enemy’s history and patterns of behavior. Two more examples include our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, we accomplished our military objectives but failed to affect the kind of change for which we had hoped. Stay tuned for next week’s blog post when we conclude part 2 of Why Thinking Historically is Central to All Business and All Leadership. 

I am pleased to announce that Jeremi Suri is now an advisor to Allen Austin and will be working with us on strategic initiatives and client engagements. Give us a call and let’s talk about how we can help you with strategic issues, executive searches, interim needs, executive coaching, and culture shaping.  

Warmest Regards, 

Rob