Remember this famous quote?
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – George Santayana
I’ve heard this one time and time again in my years in the business world. And it’s a very powerful message about learning from the past. However, I would offer that this quote should be amended to truly reflect using history to a leader’s advantage:
“Those who learn best from wisely selected history are destined to greatness”
Note the phrase “wisely selected“. When it comes to history, great leaders essentially have selective memory. Because not all of what has taken place in the past should be remembered. In fact, there is a clear danger in many instances from being too acutely aware of history.
There are three levels of selective memory at work here:
Bad outcomes can easily create paralysis, due to the fear they can conjure up when all the grisly details are remembered. But great leaders can absorb the lessons and “forget” most of those details, so when the time comes and those lessons must be applied, anxiety won’t get in the way.
On the other hand, especially good outcomes can create complacency (the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality). Great leaders can “remember” past success by looking beyond the objective results and putting a fresh eye on the people, process and policy that achieved them. Otherwise, it’s hard to raise the bar when history is supposedly telling you you’ve already nailed it.
Effective leadership selective memory also works well on a smaller scale- for example, in assessing the overall potential and performance of teammates, or effectively dealing with negative feedback.
In the case of performance, it’s the ability to sort out non-representative or inconsequential actions in making a correct assessment. As for feedback, it’s the knack of “erasing” the tone or delivery that might of upset you, and looking instead at the substance of the critique. Of course, there could also be times where the critique itself should be forgotten.
Lastly, there are those times where you should forget what may have happened 10 seconds ago – those heated exchanges that can sometimes put you in a funk for hours or days. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here – just think how many times you’ve even unconsciously applied it be telling someone “forget about it” after you’ve calmed down.
All in all, it’s that innate ability, on all three of these levels, to sort through your history and simply take with you what you need to succeed – a critical separator between “just good” and “really great” leadership.
So “select” well, and be great!