Know Your History! Why Historical Awareness Makes You a Better Leader

By David De Cremer

The truism that you learn from the past can be applied in almost all aspects of life, even in business so to say, particularly in improving leadership and management strategies and in making better decisions for future success. Read on and discover how learning from and using history led Huawei to becoming a global giant.


Being an effective leader is not only a concern in the business world but basically everywhere you look in society. Because of this pregnant concern, we are all searching for recipes, handbooks and other wonder tools to achieve the status of a leader-can-do-it-all. One dimension that may be instrumental in making you grow as a leader is currently debated. This dimension is whether historical knowledge can play a significant role in becoming a more effective leader or not. Why should there be a debate? Isn’t it the case that one hobby for many business people – once they have some free time on their side – is exactly to read about leaders in the past? Is it not a given to use historical leadership efforts as a source of inspiration to lead your own company, department or team?

Yes, the practice of reading biographies of successful business leader is widespread in the business world today, but at the same time, most business people – when reading those books – quickly realize that many conditions being discussed in the book are not a reality in their own business life. Consequently, reality quickly kicks in and the focus returns to the “here and now” without taking any lessons from the past with them to use today. It may be sheer disappointment or frustration that may guide this reaction, but at the same time it is also being documented that today’s generations wonder why they should listen to the past. This is especially the case when we see that the future generations may be well less off than past generations, thereby emphasizing that our historical deeds have not been too successful after all.

The beautiful song of Sam Cooke “What a wonderful world” even features the famous words “Don’t know much about history”, so, maybe the secret for being a truly effective leader nowadays is to live in the present and not being aware of the past. A focus on what you feel here and now in a way underlies also the success we expect from charismatic leaders. People do like to believe in the myth of the leader who is so appealing and inspiring that you can only look up in wonder. You feel enlightened and motivated to follow right here and right now. However, if we do allow ourselves to look back in the past, too many examples exist that following blindly and only relying on your intuition is not necessarily the way forward to become successful on the long term.

However, if we do allow ourselves to look back in the past, too many examples exist that following blindly and only relying on your intuition is not necessarily the way forward to become successful on the long term.

So, yes, it may well pay off if we can take more time and reflect on one’s own leadership abilities and what can be improved by learning from the past. 

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About the Author

David De Cremer is the KPMG professor of management studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK, a co-founder and co-director of the One Belt One Road center at the University of Cambridge and a visiting professor at Peking University HSBC Business School. He has published over more than 205 academic articles and book chapters and is the author of the book Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker and and co-author of “Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity”.


1. De Cremer, D. (2017). Organizational vitality: The life line of your company. The European Business Review, November-December, 44-50.

2. De Cremer, D., & Tian, T. (2015). Leading Huawei: Seven leadership lessons of Ren Zhengfei. The European Business Review, September/October, 30-35.

3. De Cremer, D. & Zhang, J. (2016). Why Focus-based Leadership is important to Huawei’s Business Strategy. The European Business Review, May/June, 40-43

4. Tian, T., De Cremer, D., & Wu, C. (2017). Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity. Sage Publishing.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.