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Historical perspective

Posted on March 1, 2017
Image of a wooden box containing old photographs

I was one of those kids who hated history in high school. I believed it to be nothing more than memorizing facts and important dates — boring. Then, Sarah McMahon changed everything. I met her my sophomore year at Bowdoin College. Her history class seemed to be the only class that fit in my schedule, and it satisfied a distribution requirement. During the very first class, her passion brought history to life. Her approach was social, examining people’s motives — what made them tick, what made them think they way they did, act the way they did. I went on to take every course she offered and opted to minor in history.

So, why am I talking about history?

First, let's look at a few things that happened on this day throughout history:

  • 1872: Yellowstone becomes the world’s first national park
  • 1890: the first US edition of Sherlock Holmes is published (A Study in Scarlet)
  • 1912: Isabella Goodwin becomes the first US woman detective appointed in NYC
  • 1937: US Steel raises workers’ wages to $5 per day
  • 1961: JFK establishes the Peace Corps
  • 1970: the US ends commercial whale hunting
  • 1972: Wilt Chamberlain becomes the first NBA player to score 30,000 points
  • 1977: Bank of America adopts the name VISA for its credit cards
  • 1982: The New York Times raises its price from 25 cents to 30 cents
  • 1995: Yahoo is incorporated
  • 2011: the tomb of a 700 year-old female mummy is found in Taizhou, Jiangsu, China

These events tell a story. They speak about literacy, volunteering, feminism, worker’s rights, environmentalism, perseverance, trends, and discovery. These events help us see something that began as an idea or a vision unfold and succeed or fail or morph into something else.

A historical perspective is necessary today, because if we don’t think through decisions and follow the potential path to understand plausible implications, then we cannot making an informed decision. No matter the decision, the possible outcomes involve humans, which means any potential outcome will be immersed in human emotion and motivation.

Take, for example, the decision to automate a production line. This decision isn’t just about the financial costs to automate; it is also about which employees lose their jobs. If the product is cheaper, will the company pocket the profits or pass those along to the consumer? What if that product is expensive medicine for young children or the elderly? Then the pros and cons to automation extend far beyond the financial benefits or drawbacks.

It is necessary to think through all of the implications before making a final decision because it is those implications that will inform the decision. Of course a company should make the decision to cut a dozen jobs if automation means the cost of a life-saving drug could be cut in half because, it is a decision that benefits the greater good.

If history is not your thing, I am not suggesting that you must develop a passion for the subject. But, to be a great decision maker, you have to understand how we got to where we are before you can take a step forward to determine where we are headed.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Sources for historical information:

Posted in leadership-management-skills