Learn from the successes, failures of the past

As an anthropologist, my brother, Jack, has always been interested in the stories of people, especially those of his own family. For several years, he urged Mom to write her stories. Each time she dismissed his request and did nothing to document her stories. Finally, in 1988, Mom wrote a couple of pages. In 1990, she wrote 15 more and she finished her work with 70 more pages in 1994. By 1996, Jack had compiled the manuscript along with period family pictures into an autobiography.

Needless to say, Jack and the rest of us were excited. With the manuscript in hand, Jack gathered pictures of the people Mom had written about and spread them on the floor. Then, he videotaped Mom reading the autobiography and panned down to the appropriate photograph as Mom read about them. Both the book and the video turned out to be wonderful pieces of work and family jewels.

Reading about Mom’s life growing up in the 1920s on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee was interesting and educational. As a child, her grandmother would hide pennies among a box of buttons and Mom and her brothers would have great fun finding them. They got to keep them for candy and in those days a penny would buy a handful of candy. Wooden thread spools were dipped into soapy water for bubble blowing and she loved to pop them as they flew away, much like today’s children. Life was simpler but very fulfilling.

Mom’s family moved to Florida for my grandfather to work in a Ford plant in 1928. The next year at age nine, Mom remembered seeing the headlines in the newspaper, “Stock Market Crashes.” Life changed dramatically. The plant closed and grandfather moved the family back to Tennessee and made railroad ties for 50 cents a day. They had a cow, chickens, and a big garden, so they weren’t in danger of starving like many of the city folks across the country.

Later, Mom’s brother, my Uncle Glenn, entered the Army at 17 years old and fought in Patton’s Army in Germany. Mom and grandmother traveled to Camp Bowie in Texas to see him before he shipped off, a tremendous feat in itself in those days. Uncle Glenn was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.

I have always been glad Jack badgered Mom into writing her stories. Most of them I had heard but some I had not. Others I had forgotten. National, local, organizational, and family histories are all important. Some make the mistake of trying to make today’s world in the image of the past. That effort is impossible and undesirable. However, there is much to learn from the successes and the failure of those who came before us. People have survived trials that dwarf those we face today. History reminds us of the possibilities of problem solving regardless of the task. The best leaders consider the past when inventing the future.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s book, Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons, visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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