“There’s no need to dwell on the past; what matters is the future.” As business historians who consult frequently to companies, we hear some version of this sentiment all the time from executives.
When the history of an organisation does come up, it’s usually in connection with an anniversary. This is not to say that celebrations are unimportant, and we sympathise with managers’ day-to-day need to focus on the steps ahead.
We also know, however, that leaders with no patience for history are missing a vital truth: a sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future.
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The job of leaders is to inspire collective efforts and devise smart strategies for the future. History can be profitably employed on both fronts. As a leader strives to get people working together productively, communicating the history of the enterprise can instil a sense of purpose and suggest the goals that will resonate. In its most familiar form, as a narrative about the past, history is a rich explanatory tool with which executives can make a case for change and motivate people to overcome challenges. Taken to a higher level, it also serves as a potent problem-solving tool, one that offers pragmatic insights, valid generalisations and meaningful perspectives. For a leader, then, the challenge is to find in an organisation’s history its usable past.
Recalling history to unite and inspire people
A shared history is a large part of what binds individuals into a community and imbues a group with a distinct identity. A history with a narrative thread also helps people understand what is happening around them.
One use of organisational history is simply to remind people “who we are.” The bond is so strong in groups that historical anecdotes making the rounds can come to constitute a truthful mythology, with or without the sanction of a group’s leaders. Companies young and old have their creation myths and cautionary tales – typically stories about risk takers, about triumph over adversity, about perseverance and sometimes just survival.
Once leaders recognise this basic truth about how history shapes culture, the importance of learning lessons from the past becomes clear. History can also be instrumental in transforming cultures that are no longer useful. Cultural change, we know, can be extremely difficult for people to embrace. Of all the competencies required of a great leader, change management is arguably the hardest to develop. One way to develop it is to look beyond today’s often repeated stories to discover other, long-forgotten ones.
Does using select pieces of the past to rally support for change seem manipulative – an exercise in “spin” or even propaganda? It could be, at least in the hands of a highly charismatic yet irresponsible leader. But don’t underestimate people’s ability to sniff out the inauthentic. The effective use of history depends on a genuine respect for what it has to teach and the belief that it holds not only anecdotes with which to adorn executive speeches, but also the deep truth of the organization.
Looking back to plan forward
Conventional problem-solving begins with two questions: what is the problem? and how can it be fixed? It is more unusual to ask: how did we get to this point? But unless you pose that question, explains Michael Watkins, who has written on the best use of an executive’s first 90 days in office, “you risk tearing down fences without knowing why they were put up.
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