Looking back might sound counterproductive to a corporate executive. After all, the mark of a good leader is to lead an organization into the future, right? Actually, it turns out that a company’s past can be as important to its future in creating a sense of belonging and unity, as well as instilling purpose in its organization. And we’re not just saying that because we’re advocates of preserving your corporate history. The experts agree.
“Leaders with no patience for history are missing a vital truth,” states an article in Harvard Business Review. “A sophisticated understanding of the past is one of the most powerful tools we have for shaping the future.”
In fact, the article points out, “as a leader strives to get people working together productively, communicating the history of the enterprise can instill a sense of identity and 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 generalizations, and meaningful perspectives—a way through management fads and the noise of the moment to what really matters.”
It makes sense. As one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, family history has captured our attention because of the sense of belonging we feel as we learn about the generations of family who have gone before. We dig deep to discover when and where our ancestors lived and died, as well as all the fascinating things that happened to them in between those two major life events. The more we learn, the more connected and inspired we feel, often looking back at their life experiences as we forge ahead on our own life’s journey.
That same sense of belonging takes place on a corporate level. When an organization captures its history—whether that history spans a couple of decades or a century or more—its employees feel connected to something bigger than themselves. They catch the vision of the company’s mission, they are inspired by stories and people from the past, and they develop a deeper sense of dedication to what they are doing.
A shared history unites us together into a community, reinforces a sense of identity, and creates a framework for growth and success moving forward. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Harvard Business School professor Alfred D. Chander Jr. often asked his students a single questions: “How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”
Creating your organization’s history is the perfect answer to that question.