History as a Leadership Hack

alex bick

History has rarely been so important for finding one’s way forward as the world becomes more contested and uncertain, says Alex Bick. And he’s not just saying that because he’s an historian. 

Bick, who joined the faculty of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy this semester as an associate professor of practice in public policy, views history as an indispensable source of insight for those who are crafting policy, especially in the midst of crises. 

“The study of history allows you to enter into the minds of individuals who made some of the most consequential decisions in the past,” Bick says. “Not just from a formal or abstract perspective, but to understand how leaders frame problems and how they deal with competing priorities, incomplete information, stress, lack of sleep and other challenges. History enables you to see where mistakes were made, and to gain a feel for the rhythm and timing of how decisions play out in the real world. That perspective is invaluable to a senior policymaker.”  

The lessons of history have been ever-present throughout his 20-year career in international affairs and national security, including roles at The Carter Center and in the Obama and Biden administrations. Bick advised President Biden during the difficult decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and later led the “Tiger Team” charged with planning the U.S. response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He helped craft the 2022 National Security Strategy, the overarching strategic framework for U.S. national security and foreign policy.

Bick has also held several teaching and research positions at institutions including John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

“I love teaching, and I love interacting with students. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience when you see someone discover that an idea they hold is no longer adequate to the problem they want to solve.” Lessons drawn from history and experience will be particularly illuminating for Batten students, he says, as they imagine themselves in a variety of decision-making positions in the future. 

Bick is currently teaching a course on the war in Ukraine, looking at the crisis from all angles – military, diplomatic, economic -- taking into account not only American but also European,  Russian and global perspectives. He’ll teach the class again this fall, as well as a course on strategic decision-making in which he’ll use case studies including the onset of World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current situation in Taiwan. The last “could become the next global crisis, so this is a way for students to reckon with the types of decisions that may lie ahead.” 

alex bick

Bick’s own history traces a powerful throughline in his career. The son of two anthropologists doing field work in Liberia, he was 12 in 1989 when warlord Charles Taylor invaded the country. Bick was old enough to follow the news on the BBC World Service and recalls carefully charting the rebels’ advance on a map. The family evacuated the following year, and the country’s civil war raged on for another 15 years. 

“I think that experience was formative for me in understanding both the terrible human impact of war and just how fragile political systems are,” he says. It also led him to think about the role of the U.S. in preventing and addressing conflict.

After he received a bachelor’s in political science, he joined The Carter Center, where he worked on programs to end conflicts in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. He also met his future wife, Nealin Parker, who worked at the center as well. 
 

Liberians voting
Liberians waiting in line to vote, Monrovia 2005.

He earned his doctorate in history from Princeton University and was selected for a Presidential Management Fellowship to work at the State Department in the Obama administration. Since then, he’s toggled between government work and academia, and is now settling in at Batten. 

The future, of course, is always unknown, but the times we face are not entirely unprecedented, he says. The U.S. has been through a civil war and experienced previous periods of deep political polarization, violence and racial strife. The global stage has also undergone tremendous upheaval. 

“We don’t yet know where the tensions we’re experiencing today will lead. These are really challenging times, but there are also reasons to think we have the resources to meet these challenges. But it’s going to take a lot of good ideas, courage and hard work.” 

Bick says he’s looking forward to helping prepare the leaders of tomorrow. He was drawn to Batten for the caliber of its students, the emphasis on interdisciplinary study, and the breadth of scholarship across the university. He and his wife – who is working to bridge political divides in the U.S. as executive director of Common Ground USA – were also drawn to Charlottesville as a place to raise their three children, with its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities.  

“We love to travel and spend time outdoors,” he says. “I have a multi-seater bike and fit as many kids as are willing to squeeze together.” 

Look for Bick’s forthcoming book, Minutes of Empire (Oxford University Press), based on his doctoral thesis examining strategic decision-making and the relationship between conquest, company and state in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.

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