The Power of Then (Part I)

In 2010, Steve Geske wrote a two part reflection – a sort of reflective foundational piece – on which much of Healing Leadership is based.  This is part I.

“Nothing worth doing is completed
in our lifetime” – Reinhold Niebuhr

“The thing we learn from history; is that we don’t learn from history.” These were the introductory words from Mr. Ben Letterman in my first lecture of my 10th grade class in World History. While cleaver, and true in some respects, they were NOT the words to say to a young teenager angry he had been placed in the college track when all of his friends were doing coloring books of maps instead of lugging around a 3 inch thick tome with very few pictures in it. “What a waste of time.” I sighed, as I prepared to endure one of the most arduous endeavors of my young life.

I’m sure Mr. Letterman was hired for his coaching skills and assigned the task of teaching “lesser” subjects as a way to justify his salary. He was most likely a good basketball coach but he was not much of an historian. Though a good motivator on the basketball court, he could not have said anything to de-motivate me more in the classroom that day. Indeed, it took me years to question his premise and dig out of my lack of appreciation for history. Only recently, have I begun to see the invitation and the perspective that a thorough knowledge of history can provide.

So what does history have to do with leadership? What can be gained by a leader who is intimately familiar with the past? I see several crucial advantages:

History is Inspiring

One phenomenon that is sweeping our country is an interest in genealogy – the history of our families. It is embodied in the new TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” We come to a deeper understanding of the amazing stamina and heroic efforts of people we’ve never met who made “us” possible. A great deal of the ground work of creating our present station in life was laid hundreds of years before we existed. It is amazing to think that my graduation from college with nearly two master’s degrees (I never finished my thesis in my second master’s degree) was made possible by a simple decision of my great, great grandfather to push his children to learn to read and write. One common experience that you hear from those who trace their family history is a sense of awe at the difficulty of life and the resourcefulness and resiliency of their ancestors in enduring or overcoming their hardships.

I remember the advice of a wise mentor of mine in college who recommended I get some depth as a student. “Get yourself some friends,” he said. “Most of them are dead.” He was telling me to immerse myself in the classics. Leadership takes stamina. It is easy to feel exhausted and alone. Yet, if we look around, we are surrounded by hundreds of examples of those who have accomplished great things against incredible odds. Knowledge of the valor of others in the past can provide stamina for the future.

History is Humbling

Not only does history inspire us with what is possible, it confronts us with what is not possible. One of the things that is not possible is control. History screams of the reality of the randomness of life. Good fortune and bad, history is full of accounts of discoveries, victories, defeats, even the creation of whole nations all taking place because the wind was blowing a certain direction.

In this age of The Secret, Tony Robbins and the Power of Positive Thinking, it is important as a leader to be reminded of what we are not. We are not gods. Success can be invited. Victory can be fought for. But no outcome is assured. At the end of each day, leaders must embrace their limitations…and then let go and get a good night’s sleep. If we are lucky, we will live to fight another day.

History is Enlightening

Leadership is about planning how to get from where we are to where we want to be. How can we accurately assess either of these without a thorough knowledge of where we have been? And a second question; what in the past is holding us there?

One of the most intriguing (and I have found useful) ideas with regard to leadership within any organization is that of the past being contained in the present. Rather than understanding the past as a billiard-ball, cause and effect event that led to the present, the past is understood as operating in real time, in the present. This means that past history is important not just for a map of how we got to the present but as an active dynamic that is influencing the present.

Here’s one implication. The dysfunction of the founding fathers (or mothers) is lived out in unconscious ways for generations within a family or an organization. In fact, I would say that the unspoken mission and the unconscious agenda in any organization is to live out the dysfunctional behaviors of the original leader of that organization. It is impossible to understand the present dynamics in any organization without uncovering those dysfunctions and making them visible. Every decision, every action tends to be tipped to some degree in this direction. Being aware of this can help make sense out of present dynamics and when present in its leaders, it helps them make better decisions. (How can this be done? That will be the topic of next month’s article.)


The presence of the past is often ignored at the peril of effective leadership. Anyone wishing to truly lead must be more than knowledgeable about the past, he or she must recognize and address its influence in the present.

Author and spiritual guide, Ekhart Tolle has given us a helpful book entitled, the Power of Now. I’d like to see another book written and reach the best seller’s list – “The Power of Then.” Wouldn’t Mr. Letterman wherever he is, be surprised to see me on Oprah? She could then donate copies to all the 10th graders in America. (Hey, stranger things have happened!)

Peace and Courage,
Steve Geske

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