Can Individuals Change The World?

Follow Milos on Twitter

Can one man change the course of history? Reform a country on his own? Create a political critical juncture? But most interestingly; how do you plan for this? And what are the steps? In order to answer this question, we turn to the men that have changed the course of history to see what they have in common and what we can learn from them. 

Leadership, drive and a messed up youth 

We think of impactful leaders as forces of nature. Trump being the arch-example. But historically there have been many interesting figures that were able to single-handedly alter the path of their nations. For example, Rudolph Thorbecke in the Netherlands who single-handedly reformed the constitutional setup. Abraham Lincoln did the same in the US. In this context, I also like the figure of Desiderius Erasmus, who by himself reformed the way we read the bible. I read the biographies of Napoleon, Lincoln, Thorbecke, Erasmus and Louis the IV and found many similarities. First of all, they were all far beyond driven. They were maniacs. They all had an obsessive drive for acknowledgment. In all cases, this drive was formed in their childhood years, when all men experienced some form of shame and humiliation. During his youth Louis the IV had an awful experience when the citizens of Paris invaded his palace and mocked him as a young boy. Lincoln was basically treated as a slave by his father. Rudolph Thorbecke was part of a noble but utterly penniless family that had to depend on gifts to survive. Erasmus lost both his parents and was put in a monastery where he didn’t want to be. They will spend a lifetime trying to compensate for this. 

Main takeaway; You need to be far beyond driven.

Ultimate expertise 

Trump will forever be a casus sui generis. We will forever try to explain how he came to power. The other leaders I studied did have something surprising in common. They were all ultimate experts in their own right. While Napoleon will forever be associated with military conquest, not many people know that he was an avid reader. His knowledge on battle tactics and governance came from thousands of hours of reading and studying. In his day and age, no one knew more about constitutional reform than ThorbeckeErasmus re-translated the bible by becoming a master in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as he delved in thousands of years of archives. Being the ultimate expert in governance, constitutional reform, bible studies, military tactics or even human psychology goes a long way. 

Main takeaway; You need to be the ultimate expert in the field you want to reform.

[Like this blog? Sign up for my newsletter to get similar context every week!]

Brazen and bold 

You can’t change the course of history with a PowerPoint. When needed, these men took assertive action and were not afraid to go against the grain. Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly where he mocks the church and its elite. This is 1511. Rudolph Thorbecke reformed the Netherlands against the will of the political elite and more importantly against the will of the King. What’s more, King William III hated Thorbeckes guts. Actually, everybody hated his guts. When he died, the political elite refused to erect a statue for him in The Hague. The adversity that Lincoln had to overcome is the stuff of legends, only eclipsed by the graceful way he met the challenges. The first thing that Louis IV did when he became king was to sideline his own mother as he knew she would never relinquish her influence. Someone you might not expect in this list of men is Nigel Farage. However, for better or worse he certainly did contribute to Brexit. In the first years of his political career he was ridiculed. What struck me the most about his tenure in the European Parliament is that he realized from an early phase that he would not bother himself with the parliamentary process. Instead, he (mis)used his position as a platform for an endless campaign. It took him 17 years, but he did it. 

Main takeaway; Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

Words equal power base 

Finally, none of these men would have succeeded without creating a power base. Strikingly, they were all wordsmiths in their own right. Thorbecke used to write op-eds under a false name to burn opponents and praise himself. The oratory talent of Lincoln still impresses modern-day speechwriters. Even Napoleon dabbled and had written the novel Clisson and Eugenie. He went further and wrote instructions for schoolchildren to memorize. Even Trump, whose vocabulary makes Bush sound like Marcus Aurelius, knew the importance of words and used a stream of careful words to reach out to his power base and discredit opponents

Main takeaway; Become a wordsmith.