Past Track to the Future

Stephen E. Ambrose has written best-selling histories of great feats of leadership and human endeavor. His insights from the past can teach a new generation of business leaders how to build for the future.


In times of discontinuous and disconcerting change, the people who give comfort are those with a keen sense of the past. They’ve seen it all before — the good, the bad, the ugly — and they know that we’ll see it all again. Stephen E. Ambrose, 65, thinks that history is the way to navigate the future. “The past,” he says, “is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”


Ambrose is the best-selling author of more than a half dozen histories of grand events, from the triumphs of World War II to the forging of the American West. His own career proves his point that history is a language for the future: His fascination with the past has created powerful trends in the present. His book D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 1994) was the basis of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The movie rights to his new best-seller, Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863 – 1869 (Simon & Schuster, 2000), have been optioned by Ted Turner, who outbid Spielberg.

The building of the railroad, as Ambrose tells the story, holds many lessons for business leaders working to build the new economy. Indeed, reading Ambrose, you could conclude that vast progress could only happen here. You could believe that America is the greatest country — and organization — that the world has ever seen, mostly because it inspires overreaching, and it tolerates failure and messiness.

Ambrose has been a historian for 45 years. Born and raised in Whitewater, Wisconsin, he intended to study medicine and to take over his father’s medical practice. But after hearing a college lecture on George Washington, he asked the professor, “How do I do what you do?” For business readers, what’s also remarkable about Ambrose is that he is running a family business: Three of his five adult kids are trained historians with advanced degrees. They work on his research-and-development team.


When asked if he meant the title of his new book literally, he hesitated for a moment and recalled a time when he got to drive a real train: “The greatest experience is the orgasm. But tooting that whistle isn’t far behind.”

Spend any time in LA, and you hear the most negative thing anybody can say about another person: “That’s so two seconds ago.” What do you make of this allergy to the past that is especially strong in business?

It’s not just true in business. When I was growing up, the worst thing you could say about something was that it was “just history.” It’s history. Who wants to be in that camp? But history includes just about everything that is happening today, from the elections to the exploration of the world’s remaining new frontiers, such as the ocean floor.


There is nothing remote about it. You open the paper, and every story has to do with it. Every political leader or business leader has to have a knowledge of the past. Cadets at West Point know their history. Every year they go to the battlefield at Gettysburg and walk the grounds. They know history in their bodies and souls. They read about Napoleon and Grant. When you know the history of wars, you understand human motivations and plans: It is all about life or death. That understanding has a way of making the issues clear.

Cadets know history, yet they fight with different weapons today. Weapons change, but men don’t. That’s why they read history.

We have such short memories. Peter M. Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, told me a story about his young son who said that maybe a “forgettery” is better than a memory. Are there things that we would be better off forgetting?


Just the opposite. If I were talking to a CEO, I’d expect him to be able to lecture me on the creation of the Manhattan Project. That was the biggest management project ever. Two billion dollars was spent, and no one knew if it would be successful or not. It combined mathematics, management, and leadership, among other things. If a CEO doesn’t know the ins and outs of that project, then how can she hope to accomplish something significant in her own work?

There are similarities between the new economy and the railroad economy. It almost seems as if the new economy really began in the 1860s.

The two economies resemble each other in important ways. Before the locomotive, time hardly mattered. Then speed suddenly entered into the picture. Phrases such as “the train is leaving the station” or “time’s a’wastin’ ” came into vogue. Urgency became the dominant emotion in the country. There was an emphasis on speed over quality. Many people got rich, and many more went bankrupt. Visions of huge fortunes and massive social change shaped people’s ambitions. A lot of people went bankrupt, but big fortunes were also made. What especially changed was our belief in ourselves to accomplish great things.


What can businesspeople learn from the leaders who built the railroad?

Persistence. Grenville Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, would say that there is no problem we can’t solve if we put our minds to it. The leaders of that undertaking had great confidence; they never doubted themselves. They had two important qualities: pride and hubris. But hubris was backed up by hard effort. They held firm. When Charles Crocker was contested for a position on the river where he could water his horses, he simply stood his ground: “A man who is well assured of his own position and shows bold front need not fear anybody.”

Before the building of this railroad, no one, no matter where or how he lived, had such optimism or determination. It was thanks to those two qualities that the Americans set out to build what had never been created before. Collis Huntington, a leader of the Central Pacific Railroad, was considered to be ravenous and irrational in pursuing his goals. A friend said of him, “If the Great Wall of China were put in his path, he’d attack it with his nails.” But he still couldn’t get anyone to buy his railroad bonds. He went ahead and laid track anyway.


From reading your book, it seems that the great projects depend on messiness. Invariably, there are unscrupulous investors, and there are builders who would have been in the nuthouse if they weren’t in business. So for all of those people who say, “Why couldn’t we have seen the dotcom crash sooner?,” the answer is, “We did see it coming, but we still had to go through the mess to create this new economy.” Would you agree?

The railroad period was a time of extremes. There were thefts, exaggerations, lies, and disputes. Accidents were frequent on the line. America had just finished fighting a war when it embarked on building the railroad. And remember, the railroad was built in a period of sharp economic instability.

Again, urgency was the dominant emotion. Just as it is now, the building of the railroad was a race of speed and greed. The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were pitted against each other. The CP was moving east, and the UP was moving west — eventually to meet around Salt Lake City. The incentives were enormous: For every 300 miles of track laid, the companies were loaned government bonds. It’s hard to say if urgency helped or hurt. It definitely hurt some. Union Pacific vice president Doc Durant died broke, and he was the one who was in the greatest hurry.


It took the railroads a long time to start making money, but once they started, they made a lot. The Union Pacific Railroad was one of the greatest corporations in the world.

We like to think that management began with Peter Drucker. You point out that modern work actually began with the Civil War and the building of the railroad, when huge numbers of men had to be managed.

A great deal of the skill that managers had was learned in the military. Armies were the biggest organizations. There were no business organizations that equaled the size of armies. Decision making, communications, and logistics — these all grew out of war. Who the hell among managers would ever know how to feed 10,000 people? Alexander the Great knew how to feed people. If you knew how to take care of people, you could transform 10,000 lazy, shiftless souls into 10,000 eager-to-work-for-you people. War taught men everything about how to become master builders.


Your books are all about great leaders who are engaged in great efforts. Heroes are not much in fashion in these cynical days. But you call yourself an unabashed “hero-worshipper,” and your books show how people can realize big ideas.

The leaders were the big men of the century. Abraham Lincoln was the driving force. Then Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were the men who held the Union together, north and south. And then with the railroad, they bound it together east and west. These men could think big, organize grand projects, and persevere.

You say that what characterized the engineers who were responsible for this feat was a basic “contempt for authority.” Why did that sentiment prove to be so significant?


Nothing stopped them. They believed in freedom. These people had to do what was thought to be impossible: build tunnels through mountains, lay track in winter. They not only had to fight the state of knowledge, but also “the earth and stone laid in their path centuries ago by the Creator,” according to one of the engineers.

Andrew Higgins, who built landing craft in WW II, refused to hire graduates of engineering schools, even though there was a lot of detail and invention involved in making those boats. He believed that they only teach you what you can’t do in engineering school. His engineers were all self-taught. He started off at the beginning of the war with 20 employees. By the middle of the war, he had 30,000 people working for him. He turned out 20,000 landing craft. Dwight D. Eisenhower told me, “Andrew Higgins won the war for us. He did it without engineers.”

These were brash fellows. What’s amazing is the pleasure they took in playing a tough, tough game. I love the story you tell of Lincoln. As a young lawyer, Lincoln handed the Illinois Central Railroad Company a bill for $2,000. When they rejected it, he submitted a revised bill for $5,000. When the corporation refused to pay that, he sued them and won. You can almost hear him laughing, like the tortoise who won the race against the hare. That’s a strategy worthy of Machiavelli.


Another brash hero is George Washington Carver. He was born a slave. He got himself educated, and he taught the South how to farm. He told the plantation owners, Cotton will destroy your land. You have to start planting peanuts or soybeans. The nitrogen will save the soil. Nobody believed him at first. He saved the economy of the South.

Today, we hear a lot about the importance of doing what you love — which doesn’t actually sound like a formula for turning out heroes. Carver didn’t necessarily do what he loved, nor did Lincoln. The heroes you write about seem to be possessed by doing what they have to do, and doing it at great personal sacrifice.

In Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Simon & Schuster, 1996), I quote a stirring resolution from explorer Meriwether Lewis. He said, “This day I completed my thirty first year. . . . I reflected that I had as yet done very little . . . to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. [I resolve] in the future to live for mankind as I have heretofore lived for myself.”


Do you see around you today leaders of the caliber of Lincoln and Dodge and the others?

I see their qualities in William Cohen and in Colin Powell. These men combine the qualities of knowledge, skill, honesty, perseverance, and intense curiosity, which is so important because it means that these leaders know more than others.

That’s what makes them the equals of Grenville Dodge, who was a Union general and could be called America’s greatest railroad builder. It was said of him that wherever he sat was the head of the table. Lincoln is in a class by himself; there is no Lincoln today. But Dwight Eisenhower, for example, had an insatiable curiosity for details. In the war, he always asked about the weather report — not just what the forecast was, but how his people came up with the forecast. If he hadn’t questioned the weather, his landing at Omaha Beach would have proven to be incorrect, and he would not have landed troops there. You never know when small details will become the determining factor.


What makes people great leaders is an ability to communicate. Eisenhower was a great communicator. He said, “Our job is to make the world safe for democracy for all ages to come.” That is a stirring, visionary point of view.

There is one other quality: a sense of the future. Lincoln could imagine a transcontinental railroad when there had never been such a thing, when no one knew the sound of a train whistle in the West.

You are a marvelous storyteller, and business is now recognizing the value of storytelling in marketing, in scenario planning, and in defining a product for funding. How did you learn to tell such well-crafted and compelling stories? And what’s the key to telling a great story?

I had to teach kids who came to class early in the morning and who were always in danger of falling asleep. They had other jobs to go to after class. I learned the value of concentrating on people, on their motivations and challenges. I learned to tell a story chronologically, never revealing the end of the story until the end. That’s what keeps people interested. You have to focus on the human motivations behind the story.

Alexander the Great went into battles carrying Homer’s Iliad. John F. Kennedy hummed the theme song from Camelot. Martin Luther King Jr. was obsessed with Gandhi. And has anyone ever told Steve Jobs that he is not John Lennon (who in turn thought he was Jesus)? The great leaders seem to wear the mythic adornments of historic leaders, or they identify with another time. If you were talking to GE president and chairman-elect Jeffrey Immelt, who is rare among corporate leaders in that he proudly admits to reading nearly a book a week, which historical book would you add to his reading list?

The formative work is Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986), his book on the Manhattan Project. That’s the defining story for business. But I would also recommend biographies of Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie. Those are the stories of how people got things done. They will be of help to people who are building the future.

As a historian, do you ever make predictions? Can you imagine that our 21st century might be remembered for producing anything on the order of the transcontinental railroad?

I do think about what the headline will be for the 21st century. I think it’s going to be that the first human being will live to be 200 years old. This is going to be the best century ever. The last was the worst — more people were killed, more buildings were destroyed than in any previous time. I believe that the cure for Alzheimer’s will come out of a plant or a fish. Remember, 97% of the world is made up of oceans. As a historian, I’m fascinated by the history that is locked up in these waters. I predict that the 21st century is going to be the great age of discovery.

Is there really anything left to discover?

There’s still so much to be discovered. And we’re going after it, in the mountains, in the oceans. What’s going to happen is that the idea of universal education will spread, along with the idea of democracy. We’ve defeated all of the totalitarian countries except for China and North Korea.

It’s going back to George Washington Carver: Who knows how many geniuses there are among Muslim women who are uneducated? When we start teaching these women how to read and write, what will they teach us about the human condition? Imagine doing that in Africa or India or Pakistan. We’re going to unleash the power of the brain. I don’t have any idea what these geniuses are going to come up with.

The primary reason why this will be the age of discovery is that there is only one superpower in the world. So there won’t be a big war. That’s what’s really going to distinguish the 21st century from the 20th century.

Harriet Rubin ( is a Fast Company senior writer and author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition (HarperCollins, 1999).

Sidebar: Pure Ambrosia

What can business leaders learn from history? Here is what a lifetime spent in the past has taught Stephen E. Ambrose about the future.

  • History teaches us what never works. Racism was our nation’s biggest mistake. Today, our greatest sports heroes are African, Asian, and European. That was unthinkable 50 years ago.
  • Nothing is permanent, even the most blood-soaked prejudices. Our two best friends are Germany and Japan, formerly our two worst enemies. You learn from history that although the young men from both sides threw themselves at each other in mortal combat, they could shake hands a generation later. Strong characters have a lot more in common than strong ideologies.
  • The biggest successes are often created by the smallest changes. George McGovern was director of Food for Peace in 1961, when the dean of the University of Georgia called him. The dean asked, “What is the best thing that the federal government has ever done for the South?” McGovern said, “The New Deal.” The dean said, “No, school lunches.” He pointed out that school attendance was pitiful and that test scores had been terrible. As soon as lunches were served, attendance and scores went way up. That’s a lesson. McGovern is building on what we’ve learned from history. The McGovern-Dole Bill, which is soon to be introduced, calls for funding for school lunches all around the world. If passed, this bill will start a revolution, because the greatest thing out there to be discovered is the potential of the human mind.
  • Optimism is always justified. What makes me confident in the future is that we’ve tried racism, totalitarianism, and a lot of other ideas in order to find that democracy is the best form of government.

Where should an education in history begin? “Go to Gettysburg,” Ambrose says. “Or compare yourself with the greatest heroes of history: Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 20th century, Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century, Meriwether Lewis in the 18th. One classic to start with is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1840 – 1914 (Simon & Schuster, 1977). For those with an interest in health, there is E.G. Chuinard’s Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (A.H. Clark Co., 1979). One of the great works of heroism is Eugene B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Presidio Press, 1981).”