History as a Guide

February 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment

In my last post I copied an editorial that I wrote for the Frederick News Post.  I was recently asked what specific lessons we could learn from history and how they might apply in the current relief efforts in Haiti.  A recent news story answers that question in marvelous way. 

A recent report claims that a Catholic relief services organization has become so fed up with the delay in supply delivery and a lack of security to protect supply lines that they have started a new tactic.,..surprise deliveries.  They are going out at night and simply setting up their operations when no one expects them.  they hand out the supplies to those who they find and continue to invite the local population to get supplies until they run out.  This method has everything going for it.  It is simple, effective, innovative and meets the mission goals of the organization while supporting the local population in need.  In short this was a stroke of brilliance. 

You see, in 1862 when Jonathan Letterman was faced with a similar shortage of vehicles and logistical support, he simply invented a new system.  He used his ambulances to carry supplies after they had delivered their patients.  He also sent his subordinate officers out into the countryside to find medical boxcars which had been side tracked by officials of the B&O Railroad at the request of army officials keen on speeding ammunition and other supplies to the battle front.  By taking control over his own logistical destiny, Letterman carved a new path for himself and his department.  This new thinking helped him support his mission of medical support while it improved the lives of the soldiers that he would care for during the Antietam campaign. 

The Catholic relief organization in Haiti showed the same type of innovation.  They assessed their assets, analyzed the need, took note of the obstacles in their way and then took the action needed to meet their mission goal.  It sounds so easy and yet it is very difficult to do.  There is always the temptation to say:” That is not how we do things here.”  It is hard to step out of our comfort zone and do things differently. If we fail then we are no longer protected by our past successes.  We can no longer claim that it had always worked before.  When we break the mold and take a bold new direction we are out on a limb and there is no safety net.  If we fail in our efforts we do so for all the world to see…or do we?

The great Leonardo da Vinci saw failure in a different light.   For him it was better to try unsuccessfully than not try at all.  The only failure was failure to try.  By learning from all of his unsuccessful endeavors he was able to plan and predict for future efforts.  His brilliance lay not in the fact that he never failed, but that he learned from his mistakes and then changed his future plans accordingly. 

Late night food deliveries in Haiti could have been a disaster.  The question is whether the disaster would have been any greater than the  earthquake itself.  Like Letterman before them, our relief agency saw that their mission was not being met by status quo thinking and therefore they decided to risk an innovative plan to meet fulfil their mission.  Like Leonardo, they saw that the only failure was to do nothing and allow the people to continue in their suffering.  In this case history, and humanity, were on their side. 

This is a perfect example of using the past to lead in the modern world.  I am sure that Letterman and da Vinci would be proud!

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Learning from History A New Era

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