Early-20th-century philosopher and poet, George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With that in mind, here’s a quick look back at seven world-changing events from 2016 and leadership lessons we can learn from them.


Lesson #1: Don’t Lose Touch with the Needs of Those You’re Leading (Brexit)
On June 23, 2016, surprising the pundits and ruling class, British citizens voted on a referendum to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Lessons:

  1. Leaders can lose the pulse of the people. A commitment to truly serve those we lead presses us to stay close in touch with them, but it’s important to be intentional about this.
  2. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. There’s always a group that yells the loudest, but we must not believe that volume equals majority. We must look past the noise to hear what people are really saying, experiencing, and feeling.

Lesson #2: Don’t Allow Gaps in Your Leadership (Syria and Aleppo)
When Russian President Putin gained nearly unfettered access to Syria, he joined Syrian President Assad in crushing resistance fighters and mercilessly decimating territories under contention, Aleppo being but one of those battleground sites. Lessons:

  1. When we create a vacuum by the withdrawing our leadership, the vacuum we create will be filled. Stepping back so others can step forward is not, in and of itself, a virtuous act.
  2. Brute force, in pursuit of any aim, produces outcomes that are brute.

Lesson #3: Focus on the Fundamentals (Rio Olympics 2016)
In spite of the Zika virus, 206 nations and over 11,000 athletes gathered in Rio de Janeiro to compete in the 31st Olympiad. Lessons:

  1. The brief film clips of glorious performances by world-class athletes gloss over the thousands and tens of thousands of hours of inglorious work that led to those few shining moments.
  2. Triumph requires staying relentlessly focused on the fundamentals, rather than on watching the scorecard. It’s the process and the discipline that counts.

Lesson #4: Never Give Up Hope (Cubs, Cavs, and Other Unlikely Sports Victories)
Chicago Cubs fans put 108 years of World Series failure behind them. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended a citywide 52-year championship drought. Across the pond, Leicester City won its first soccer championship in 132 years. Closer to home, Villanova ended a 31-year NCAA title dry spell and Army, after 14 years of defeat by Navy, recovered its dignity. Lessons:

  1. While the best predictor of future behavior is prior results, this is not determinative. A long track record can be broken, and any year can be a year of new beginnings.
  2. Actions are a powerful way to establish new thoughts and beliefs. More than a century of believing in the “curse” came to an end when the Chicago Cubs won.

[Tweet “Any year can be a year of new beginnings.”]

Lesson #5: Be True to Your Design (Presidential Election)
The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States has left many in disbelief, shock, and anger. Others celebrate it as a welcome, hopeful change. In years to come, this election will be mined for leadership lessons, but here are a few for starters:

  1. Donald Trump didn’t pretend to be what he wasn’t. The people you lead want to know you for who you are, and that you’re comfortable with being you. Authenticity trumps many other qualities; bigly.
  2. Persistence in the face of overwhelming odds can change the odds. Many pursuits have been lost because the contender, seeing that a win was impossible, quit. Triumph is seldom the companion of quitters.

Lesson #6: Own Up to Your Mistakes When You Fall (Hillary Clinton’s Illness and Public Fall)
When Hillary Clinton suffered a health crisis on 9/11 and fell forward as she was being assisted into her vehicle, it became major news. Lessons:

  1. Every leader falls (and fails). When that happens, we must quickly acknowledge it and candidly address how we will avoid an encore performance.
  2. Nobody expects leaders to be perfect, but our fall/failure is compounded when we try to cover it up or pretend that it didn’t really happen.

Lesson #7: Do The Right Thing No Matter the Cost (Flint Water Crisis)
On January 16, 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan after findings revealed the city’s drinking water was contaminated with unsafe levels of lead. It was eventually discovered that city officials, in an attempt to cut cost and make up for ongoing financial downturn, used a corrosive water source that caused lead and other heavy metals to leach out of aging pipes into drinking water. Lessons:

  1. Leaders do the right thing no matter what the cost, especially when the welfare of human lives is on the line.
  2. Leaders get the facts, do the research, and don’t cut corners.

[Tweet “Persistence in the face of overwhelming odds can change the odds.”]

Bonus Lesson: No Matter the Longevity of Your Leadership, It Will End (The Death of Fidel Castro)
After 40 years of dictatorial rule over the Republic of Cuba, Fidel Castro perished. Lessons:

  1. Everybody’s time in leadership ends. The question we must ask is never, “can I stay in charge,” but must always be, “will I leave things better when my time is done?”
  2. The purpose of leadership is to prepare the future to be stronger and healthier and more vital than the past. No legacy is meritorious when this is not accomplished.

What lessons will we learn in 2017? We will have to wait and see. One thing we know about the year ahead. We will – each one of us – have countless opportunities to learn, to repent and apologize, and to get better. Here’s wishing you a wonderful year of growth and contribution!

John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader,” an expert at growing great leaders, and President of Newton Institute. Learn more at www.newtoninstitute.com

Photo by Eric Rothermel (unsplash.com)