February 22, 2024

Why Thinking Historically is Central to All Business and All Leadership Part 2 (TPL Insights #210)

By Rob Andrews

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

Continued from last week’s post….

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 OfficeHenry Kissinger and the American CenturyLiberty’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.

The Supreme Importance of Empathy

Most of what we covered last week was low-hanging fruit. Empathy is the first hard part of thinking strategically, and the bad news is that most of us are not that good at it. To be clear, empathy is not sympathy, and it goes far beyond being understanding when your friends or colleagues are experiencing difficulties. Empathy, in this context, is what every historian does. It is placing yourself in the shoes of your enemy, customer, or competitor. We fail to do this every day. Because we legitimately want to destroy terrorists, we minimize our chances of ever winning (whatever that means). Here is the historical perspective: Most people, regardless of how horrible we might think they are, are very rational in their decision making, at least for that time.

According to Suri, our terrorist enemies understand us far better than we understand them. They are thinking historically, and we are not. They anticipate how we are going to respond and act accordingly. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are a perfect example. Bin Laden and his lieutenants planned the attacks to have maximum disruptive impact on our very being. The most horrible attack on U.S. soil in history accomplished Bin Laden’s objective. In contrast, our response after the attacks included short-term victories for sure but fell miles short of our long-term objectives. Thinking empathetically about our military and political wins and losses can add a new level of effective thinking in countless real world and real time situations.


Suri asserts that we have become less imaginative over time. Yes, we can think of new ways to make money, but real imagination is harder to find these days, as evidenced by the popularity of reality TV. If there were more imaginative television programs, we wouldn’t need people following other people around with cameras, recording what they do every single day.

Where does imagination come from? Suri asserts that looking back at yesterday is a great way of imagining what is possible tomorrow. It’s very interesting to consider the way in which we withhold taxes for federal income taxes and social security. Most of us take it for granted, as if it has always been that way and will continue long into the future. The reality is that our current system, not practiced in many societies, was put into practice during the depression, when wage controls existed, and it was illegal to pay anyone beyond a certain amount. The objective of our current system is to be able to pay people more without raising their pay. Historical thinking seeks not to criticize, but to understand how and why our world looks the way it does today. What Suri’s undergraduates often say is that things are the way they are and that’s always the way they will be. Not necessarily.

According to Jeremi, all of this is about telling stories.  Leadership is about telling stories. Leadership is about connecting the past with the present to get to the future. Great leaders are communicators and fire up people’s imaginations. They have a way of rethinking things. They can empathize, anticipate, and imagine, and we get drawn into their stories for that reason. We follow them, we listen to them, and we enjoy learning from them.

Suri cites the way Michael Bloomberg sold “the future New York City” from 2001 until 2013. Jeremi grew up in New York City during the 1970s and said it was not a comfortable place to live. It was dirty, grimy and crime-ridden. Regardless of your politics, Bloomberg was imaginative enough to sell a vision of NYC that appealed to the masses in a big way. The picture below depicted a very different Manhattan than the real one that existed in 2001. Bloomberg told a story, to Americans and New Yorkers, about what NYC could be. Think what you will about Bloomberg, but he was incredibly successful in telling the story that engaged millions of stakeholders to foresee what NYC could be.

Historical thinking is about time streams. It’s not about stepping into the same lake twice. It’s about studying change over time. Bad effective leaders (yes that’s what he said) are fighting the last battle they know about. They’re fighting to be the leaders of the market of yesterday. That’s not historical thinking, it’s antiquarianism. Effective leaders are looking at how the market is changing, or how the nature of warfare is changing, and they’re fighting today’s war as they consider how it’s different from yesterday’s. It’s way too easy to say what went wrong last time and do the opposite. Welcome to the world of foreign policy, presidential elections, and bad decisions.

Last month, we did an internal exercise around what we could learn from Jeremi’s talk. It turned out to be an incredibly stimulating conversation. I hope you will get as much out of this paper as I did researching and writing it. Give us a call and let’s talk about how we can be thought partners.

Warmest Regards,