Be Careful of the Ironies in Your Life

History is full of irony. Consider some of the more famous statements leader’s have made and how’s it’s come back to haunt them later:

• “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”

Decca Recording Company, declining to sign the Beatles, 1962.

• “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

Western Union Internal Memo, 1876.

• “Everyone acquainted with it will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.”

Henry Morton, Stevens Inst. of Technology, on Edison’s light bulb, 1880. 

photo credit: Code Michigan via photopin (license)

photo credit: Code Michigan via photopin (license)

• “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

• “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.”

Bank president advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in him, 1903.

We laugh at these quotes in hindsight, but the truth is, people have always struggled to see the big picture. We simply cannot envision what’s coming up ahead. We get tunnel vision; we become combative. Our egos are big. We stubbornly cling to our ways, and it blinds us.

Let me offer some of the most intriguing ironies in history and what we can learn from them as we lead today. Pause and ponder the following…

Shakespeare’s children were illiterate.

According to, William Shakespeare attended Stratford’s local grammar school, where he mastered reading, writing and Latin. He went on to be one of England’s greatest writers, poets and playwrights. He is famous for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and many others. Ironically, his wife and their two children, Susanna and Judith, are believed to have been illiterate their entire lives (though Susanna could scrawl her signature). Wouldn’t you think that a man who’s famous for his written words would have passed on his skill at home and equipped his own wife and children with the tools he possessed?

My Lesson: Be sure to pass on my gift to those closest to me before I offer it to the rest of the world. Practicing what I preach is Rule #1 in leadership.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were both nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

During the 1940s, the actions of these two political leaders led to over 40 million murders combined. However, Hitler was honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1939… the very year he began seizing other European nations by force, while Stalin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948. What’s up with that? When elected, these men took great aims to appear as “saviors” to outsiders, helping to organize their countries after horrible economic depressions. Unfortunately, the rest of the world had no idea just what plans they really had in store.

My Lesson: Live above pretense. I must not pose as something I’m not, knowing the truth will eventually be discovered. Authenticity lends credibility in my leadership.

Napoleon Bonaparte enlarged France’s rule… but wasn’t even from there.

This military conqueror and emperor won battle after battle, expanding France’s dominance during his day—as if his calling was to restore France’s dominance among the world’s powers. One would think his passion emerged from the fact that France was his mother country—but he was originally from the island of Corsica, a land that had belonged to Genoa for years. Wouldn’t you think that adopting another country as one’s own, for which one is willing to die, is a little strange?

My Lesson: Know who I am. I must match my identity with my calling, not merely adopt a context just so I can conquer a world. Context and competency must align.

IBM Chairman Thomas Watson didn’t think there was a future for computers.

Watson’s line is now famous. The chairman of IBM just couldn’t see the future of his own company when he said in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Little did he know that the mainframe computer would become the primary funding for his payroll and, eventually, the very future of his company.

My Lesson: See beyond my current reality. Effective leaders master today’s tasks, but work to envision where the future’s going and adjust to it. I must be willing to adapt.

Alfred Nobel was famous for his Peace Prize… but he also invented dynamite.

The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel noticed one day that the local newspaper had confused his brother’s death with his. In other words, the obituary was for him, and the main thing it mentioned was his revolutionary dynamite… a tool that enabled armies to slaughter each other. Not wanting this to be the way he’d be remembered, he created the Nobel Peace Prize… and the rest is history. Nobel had the rare chance to change his obituary halfway through his life. Sadly, we don’t always seize this opportunity. How interesting for this chemist to preview his potential legacy… and then choose to change it.

My Lesson: I must be sure my legacy is ultimately positive and redemptive. Leaders work to leave their world better when they pass through it. I must add value.

Pause and reflect on your own life and leadership for a moment. Are there any ironies? Is your self-awareness high or low? Is there anything you need to change as you embark on 2015 that will lead to greater integrity and productivity?

Be Careful of the Ironies in Your Life