Most people in leadership positions focus on the present and the future. When conversation turns to an organization’s history, it is usually in connection with milestones such as anniversaries or leadership transitions.
A quickly changing world has no time for winsome nostalgia. However, people who lead with history understand that storytelling about the past can be a tool for shaping the future.
Leaders can devise strategies for the future by harnessing organizational history. Iconoclasts, innovations, and impact inform the organization and what it wishes to become. Communicating an organization’s history instills a sense of identity and purpose as a leader strives to engage people collectively. Leaders who understand the power of archives use history to advocate for change and motivate people to overcome challenges. It acts as a problem-solving tool that offers insights and meaningful perspectives.
History as Identity
A shared history imbues a group identity among individuals, which is needed now more than ever with remote teams. A narrative about the organization helps people understand what is happening around them and guides them in their decision-making. When they know their organization’s history, employees may see events as something larger than themselves.
Discovering and studying the history of an institution entails the ability to explain events as a flow or process over time, not just a sequence of isolated happenings. It allows people to approach the past with a sense of curiosity. People who value institutional memory perceive the past on its terms and in ways comprehensible to people of the time. People often cannot help but distort the past through the lens of their experiences, ideas, and values. Avoiding “presentism” helps us understand past decisions. Most importantly, valuing organizational history allows for understanding events in their contemporary social, intellectual, political, and economic contexts.
History also transforms organizational culture. Change is challenging for people to embrace in their personal lives, let alone their professional ones. Leaders can look beyond today’s stories to reach for other ones. Leaders can use their history to explain necessary changes and actions to adapt to a new way of doing things.
Engaging with History
Consider some ideas for engaging with history at an organization. Employees can survey the organization’s history. This information will help leaders understand how history shapes beliefs about the institution today and fill in missing pieces that should be addressed. An organization can also make it a routine to interview departing, long-tenured employees. Such interviews often provide a history not covered in the written record. Departments like marketing and publicity can make the organization’s history accessible. They can capture stories about the organization’s work and use them for marketing, publications, and social media. The organization should document lessons learned as part of the workflow for significant projects and initiatives. Recognize that one can discover as much from failure as from success. The documentation can also help employees seek a historical perspective from the organization’s past before major decisions. Most importantly, organizations should have an archives program, no matter how small. Understanding institutional history requires access to important documents, images, and artifacts.
The Power of the Past
Leading with history acknowledges its power. An organization’s culture, capabilities, development, and interactions with external forces shape leaders’ choices and influence how people think about the future.
Great leaders see history in their everyday activities, not just for milestone anniversaries. They think about the present in terms of its past and view their organization’s experiences as a part of their thinking towards change. They find a rich source of stories that characterize their organizations to motivate employees to embrace change. Doing so allows them to manage their organizations more effectively and find their place in history.
Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.
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