Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explains why all leaders should study history

In today’s rapidly evolving world, business leaders spend most of their time looking forward. But they shouldn’t forget to look back.

That’s according to Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has directed “The Roosevelts” and “The Civil War.” In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, he discusses the importance of learning about history.

“Business leaders ought to study history,” Burns said. “You can’t possibly know where you are or where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

The experiences of historical leaders can serve as cautionary tales or inspiration. For instance, Burns notes that Abraham Lincoln was “born into poverty on the frontier,” while Franklin Roosevelt was “born to such great privilege that he could have spent his life in idleness;” yet both men became great American leaders.

Of course, a history lesson is not something you’re likely to get in business school.

“In the late 1970s a top executive at a large telecommunications company lamented to me that business schools were producing MBA graduates who had no knowledge of the humanities,” Burns told HBR. “He worried that they were a bunch of automatons. He said, ‘I can teach these people business skills, but I can’t teach them ethics, history, or art.'”

Many of today’s leaders study history through their personal reading. For example, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has read biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Howard Hughes, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has read history books like “The Muqaddimah” and “The End of Power.”

As philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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