Wow, it is fascinating to watch us respond to challenging circumstances. I have witnessed first-hand and in the media some things that make me ask what kind of future are we creating today?
“The present,” according to the historian and philosopher David Carr, “gets its sense from the background of comparable events to which it belongs.” I ask, what about our future?
Knowing the history of a group to which we belong can help us understand the future.
Seeing past events and ourselves, as part of a still unfolding story, and of something larger than ourselves allows us to make sense of the world. Likewise, the same applies to us individually. When we understand what is important to us about our past narrative (our values and story), we can use this to shape our present and future.
It’s obvious, right? One use of organisational history then is simply to remind people who we are and what we stand for. The bond is so strong in groups that historical anecdotes making the rounds can come to constitute a business’ story and values, with or without the sanction of the business’ leaders.
Equally as a nation, our collective story will shape our future.
Why Do Stories Get Repeated?
…such as stories about the organisation’s past? And why do we repeatedly tell stories about our past?
Because it says something positive about the values that people want to preserve. It says something about who we are and what we stand for. In my humble opinion, once leaders recognise how history shapes culture, the importance of learning lessons from the past becomes clear.
One of my clients once said to me, “We believe it is essential for every one of our partners and colleagues to understand our history and how our values were shaped over time. Although the context today is radically different from what it was twenty years ago, we can still draw lessons from understanding how previous generations of partners confronted challenges and opportunities and responded to them. The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future.”
Even when no clear picture of the future can be discerned in the past, leaders can use their stories and values to explain how the organisation has arrived at a critical need for change, and why the sometimes painful steps that follow are necessary in a larger process of change and adaptation.
We need to thinking Like an Historian
The reality is that we are all historians when it comes to making decisions. The ability to identify opportunities or problems in the present (and to frame aspirations for the future) inevitably grows out of personal experience augmented by our broader societal knowledge of what has come before. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?
So it doesn’t surprise me when I work with business leaders that many, think like historians. They start with an insistence on basing any serious decision on facts. To be a good historian demands treating facts with intellectual integrity – viewing them with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised.
History also impels us to think about the long term – another strength of the best leaders, whose well-developed, long-range perspective on the companies they manage may be the only antidote to current pressures.
An old saying, frequently attributed to Mark Twain, is, History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. That is why we also search for useful analogues in history. For it is in the rhyming, the patterns, we can find perspective on the dimensions of our challenges and on the questions we must pose in order to progress.
You too have a rhythm in your story. It has created your values, which drive your behaviour. Use it to create a story that chimes with your employees, clients, and stakeholders alike.
Here are my three action points to creating a culture where stories and values connect:
- Create a consciousness in the business, a willingness to look back at events. Allow individuals to voice their nostalgic emotions. Allow them to reminisce about their feelings, good and bad.
- Use these feelings and emotions to build trust with one another, building a sense of freedom, happiness, and cohesion. In time they will shape the values of the business.
- As a leader, be vulnerable. Get out there with your teams and show your emotions. You should be doing this online now too. I can help you. Talk to your people about your emotions and feelings of sadness and happiness about the business’ past experiences. Use this to boost well-being in the team and galvanise tolerance for change and a sense of meaningfulness in life and in the future of business.
The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future. Lets create the future we want, today.
You can hear this podcast episode on Spotify.