The Idea Grove blog is not a history site. But our most popular post -- with more than 500,000 visitors to date -- happens to be called “The 10 Greatest Countries in the History of the World." In that article, I explore how history is written by the winners, making it the ultimate form of PR.
I came very close to becoming a history professor before starting a career in journalism, a.k.a., the first rough draft of history. Now, thanks to COVID-19, I am home-schooling my 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son in U.S. and European history for an hour each day with help from John Green's Crash Course series.
The experience has taught me a few things. When I studied history at the University of Virginia, it was within an academic bubble before I had lived my life. Today I see history’s lessons within the context of my 15 years as a business owner. It’s provided an entirely different perspective -- as well as valuable instruction to help me be a better leader.
Today, I'm taking a look at what we can learn from some red-letter days in U.S. history. You’ll notice that with countries, as with people, sometimes our greatest moments are the result of hard work — and other times of good fortune. As with the "Greatest Countries" post, my own commentary is mixed with direct pulls from Wikipedia in most cases; I didn’t demarcate which was which so it would be easier to read. Just assume it’s all borrowed if you’d like.
And now, here are seven leadership lessons from America's best moments:
- We are all better than our worst day. The U.S. victory at Saratoga on Oct 17, 1777 was the turning point of the Revolutionary War as well as one of the most decisive battles in history judging from its consequences. What had seemed an improbable dream of independence before Saratoga suddenly appeared an inevitability. And do you know who the hero of this great battle was? Major General Benedict Arnold, who at the time was George Washington's most aggressive field commander. Today he is known for betraying his country -- but we might not have a country without him.
- Compromise is a sign of strength, not weakness. The Bill of Rights were ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, defining what makes the United States one of the greatest countries in history — the protection of individual freedoms. The Bill of Rights only exist because of a compromise between federalists and anti-federalists on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution; our Constitution would not exist without it. George Washington said the Bill of Rights gave “the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.” I think we can all agree he was right.
- Set goals that inspire people. In helping America to win the space race over the Soviet Union, Neil Armstrong opened a new frontier when he became the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969. Unfortunately, our country has failed to establish such audacious goals for space travel since. One of the most celebrated scientists in the world, Stephen Hawking, warned before his death: “It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species.”
- Pain leads to clarity. In asserting near the Civil War’s end that the Union would be willing to fight “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 marked the first time a U.S. president had equated the lives of white men with those of black men — something that would have been unthinkable even a few years before.
- Leadership requires generosity. The Marshall Plan, announced on June 5, 1947, was a truly visionary reconstruction plan that resurrected Western Europe after the devastation of World War II. During a four-year period, the U.S. contributed $13 billion of economic and technical assistance — equivalent to around $155 billion in 2020. Over the next two decades, Western Europe enjoyed unprecedented prosperity — while Eastern Europe stagnated under Soviet domination.
- Don't always worry about the odds. With Woodrow Wilson’s remarkable Fourteen Points document of Jan 8, 1918, the president set out a blueprint for a just and lasting peace in Europe after World War I — aiming to reform foreign policy on moral and ethical grounds. Wilson’s idealism gave him moral leadership among the Allies, and encouraged Germany to surrender. Unfortunately, after the war Wilson was betrayed by the French, who demanded outrageous concessions from Germany, and by the U.S. Congress, which refused to endorse Wilson’s League of Nations. Despite Wilson's failure in the face of long odds, the United Nations might not exist today but for the Fourteen Points.
- Overnight success can take a long time to achieve. The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 happened very quickly, but might not have if not for a bitter Cold War between the United States and USSR that gripped the world for more than 40 years. The wall was a propaganda disaster for East Germany and for the Communist Bloc as a whole. It became a key symbol of Soviet tyranny — and in November 1989, a symbol of that tyranny’s defeat.
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