Who Owns History?

How much does your perspective shape the way you understand something?

Recently a couple buddies of mine came for a visit to discuss a project on decision-making. We spent several days in animated discussion about the topic, pulling in examples from many different angles, including from the financial world, entrepreneurship, and military history.

In the days since their visit, I’ve been thinking about perspective, a topic we discussed in some detail. We talked a lot about how much the point of view we have on a subject shapes the choices we make. We concluded our workshop with a drive to the top of Pikes Peak, over 14,000 feet high, which dramatically illustrated the concept of perspective. Colorado Springs seems sprawling when you drive through it, but it appeared small when we looked at it from the top of the mountain.

Those couple of days caused me to think about the year 2008, when I was deployed to Anbar, Iraq, as a member of the senior Marine headquarters staff in the province. That was a relatively quiet (emphasis on “relative”) year in Anbar from a combat perspective and my section of the staff was focused on things like helping to re-establish governance and improve economic development. As part of that mission, we frequently engaged with a variety of Iraqi leaders, including tribal elders.

One evening, another Marine and I, along with our Iraqi-American colleague, went to dinner at the Ramadi home of Anwar Karbit, who was one of the preeminent sheikhs in Anbar. We were treated as honored guests and enjoyed a sumptuous traditional dinner. Sheikh Anwar was a highly educated man so we also enjoyed a spirited discussion on a wide range of topics, including war and politics. The Gulf War came up and my partner commented on how we all saw the same event so differently. I’ll never forget Anwar Karbit’s reaction when he heard this. He was sitting on a plush cushion, wearing traditional clothing with full headdress, looking every inch the successful sheikh. When he heard the comment his eyes absolutely lit up and he stopped the conversation by raising a single finger into the air. Then he said, “History is written by individuals.”

Anwar Karbit’s reaction struck a chord in me at the time, one that’s stayed with me ever since. His statement, “History is written by individuals,” was the local equivalent of “The winners write the history books.” He and I came from vastly different backgrounds and the lessons we absorbed about something like the Gulf War sprung from those backgrounds. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that we should have looked on that event differently. When he raised his finger in the air to stop the conversation, I realized right away that we didn’t see things the same way. But what was of even more value for me in my development as a leader was the clear and bright example of how important perspective is when considering a complex problem. And, how much it can help to develop some empathy (aka the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective) when trying to negotiate something, or to solve a problem involving stakeholders who have very different backgrounds.

From the discussion I had with my buddies and from my dinner with Sheikh Anwar Karbit, I think the following points are of use for leaders:

1. Consciously check your assumptions about the other party when entering into negotiations or problem-solving discussions, especially when they involve multiple stakeholders. If you believe you can see things through the other guy’s eyes, slow down and make sure you know what that assumption is based on.

2. Never pass up an opportunity to practice active listening. The insight one can gain from truly understanding what someone is saying and how they are saying it is priceless. The good news: this is a skill you can improve over time.

3. Embrace the idea that your perspective shapes the choices you make in the same way others’

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