Lessons from History

For today’s program on Lessons from History, my first guest was Doug Moran of If You Will Lead LLC, and author of the book “If you Will Lead: Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders”, followed by Rhondalynn Korolak of Imagineering Unlimited, author of the book “On the Shoulders of Giants“.

In 5,000 years of recorded human history, we can find every imaginable leadership example — good and bad — from which we can learn. And we ought to learn from the examples of others, because it is so much less expensive than having to learn everything for ourselves.

After I mistakenly introduced Doug by reading Ron Chapman’s bio, we righted our course and got into the meat of Doug’s message — that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Leaders such as George Washington can teach us so much. Washington was successful because of his relentless efforts to improve himself. He had a bad temper, which he worked all his life to control. He had weaknesses and shortcomings, and he went out of his way work on his own character, and improve himself. He developed a tenacity and a clarity of vision that allowed him to successfully lead the American Army through tremendously difficult times, including a three year time period of continual defeats and retreats. Throughout, Washington displayed a selflessness that is the hallmark of great leaders.

Modern corporate scandals are also examples of leadership that we can learn from — bad leadership. They frequently represent the opposite example from Washington, as these failed leaders so often show a profound selfishness. They put their own interests ahead of the interests of their company or their employees or their customers.

When you are a leader, and your personal interests are not lined up with the interests of the organization you lead, you must disentangle that. You must put the organization’s interests ahead of your own, or find a way to eliminate the conflict, or you have to replace yourself.

Doug has found that leaders — like everybody else — can be paralyzed by fear, and one way to overcome that fear is to ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Or has someone once told him, “They can kill you but they can’t eat you.” Just the act of naming a fear can reduce it, can put it in perspective, and can rob it of its power.

What leaders would Doug suggest we study, in addition to George Washington? One would be Harriet Tubman. She showed great personal courage in freeing slaves along the Underground Railroad.

When Doug was recruited to take a post in the Virginia government, he tried to say he was not qualified, and in the process of making that argument, he really dwelt on his own shortcomings. He eventually agreed to take the job, and those reflections on his shortcomings led him to realize he needed to surround himself with extraordinary people.

In his book, Doug wrote about Captain James Mulligan who was a POW in Vietnam. The POWs developed elaborate and effective systems of mutual support, built not around rank but around the personal strengths of each person. They subordinated rank to a more collegial and mission oriented need to keep each other going. This taught Doug that the organization chart is nothing more than a tool.

Doug and I agreed that wiser and more effective leaders develop the habit of shopping their problems around to their friends, advisers, subordinates, and “kitchen cabinet” to get input from many people.

My second guest was Rhondalynn Korolak of Imagineering Unlimited, author of the book “On the Shoulders of Giants.”

Rhondalynn Korolak experienced tragedy and personal testing as a young woman. Her mother was murdered by a group of young men, including her own brother. While still grieving the loss of her mother, she chose to testify against her brother. In the years that followed she struggled to find direction and meaning for life. A key moment came when she encountered a quote from Richard Nixon, “The finest steel goes through the hottest fire.” Those words allowed her to reinterpret her life up to that moment. It became possible for her to see her misfortunes, not as dooming her, but as preparing her in some way for future success.

Rhondalynn went on to earn a law degree, a CPA certification, and become a licensed hypnotherapist.

As she put it, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage consists of finding a calling that is greater than your fear.

Rhondalynn draws inspiration from figures like Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist locked up in concentration camps by the Nazis in WW II, who used his imprisonment to reflect on the nature of personal power and freedom, and who came to believe that the external realities of our lives only have the meanings we allow them to mean, and we always retain an indestructible power of choice.

Rhondalynn says “We either get to have results or reasons — we don’t get to have both.” You can either have a successful company, or we can have a bunch of reasons why we don’t.

In coaching her business clients, Rhondalynn requires her clients to create written goals and to focus on them. She has become convinced that the biggest obstacle most of us face is ourselves.

History shows that more new inventions were created and more new businesses started in the Great Depression of the 1930s than in any other comparable time period.

And as we’ve covered in earlier episodes, the human brain seeks out things that we are prepared to find — using a part of the brain known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) that filters out meaningful versus non-meaningful stimuli. We receive perhaps 2,000,000 bits of stimulus data every second, and the RAS (through a process of deleting, distorting and generalizing) filters that down to about 134 bits — the bits that are “interesting”. This happens completely without conscious thought.

The mind needs goals to give the RAS something to work with, some things to identify as interesting. When we pick out goals, we can put the RAS to work for us, helping us find the opportunities we need to take us closer to our goal. By contrast, when we focus on what we don’t want, we notice more of the things we don’t want.

When we control what we pay attention to, we are making use of the RAS, making use of the mind and the tools we were born with, and making progress on our desired goals.

Making this mental shift — focusing less on what we don’t want, and more on what we do want — takes at least 21 days. It’s a new habit. And we will do better in building that habit if we are gentle and encouraging of ourselves. Think of a baby learning to walk. The baby takes, well, baby steps. The baby falls down a lot. Balancing is itself a huge accomplishment. And as parents we pour love and attention and encouragement on each small victory. And that works.

It works on our habits, too. A new habit forms slowly and haltingly, just like a baby learning to walk. We can help ourselves by getting out of the pattern of self-criticism and condemnation for each mistake, and simply appreciate each small victory.

Readers of this blog have the option to visit Rhondalynn’s special-offer web site, www.guideyourselftogreatness.com, to purchase her book (US$23.99). If you do so, you will receive:

  • A personally autographed copy
  • Free shipping from Australia!
  • A FREE list of Rhondalynn’s Top 7 Tips to Spot and Stop Self Sabotage and
  • An audio CD featuring Rhondalynn (valued at $30)

My thanks to Rhondalynn Korolak for making this special offer available to my readers and listeners.

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