OPENING | The Value of History
“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – Mark Twain
A thorough analysis of the past might just be the best thing for your community’s future. Because great community-builders think like historians.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by John T. Seaman, Jr. and George David Smith (both historians) entitled “Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool” argues that “[g]reat leaders…[d]on’t ignore history until the time comes to plan their organization’s next anniversary. And though they may not view themselves as historians, they find it useful to think and talk about the past – in the present and in living color.”
Seaman Jr. and Smith cite the simple and profound question with which Alfred D. Chandler prodded his Harvard Business School classes: “How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”
And this is why you should incorporate history into the decisions that you make when striving to build positive communities at work, at school, and in your neighbourhood.
One of my favourite blogs, Active History, makes a business (don’t tell them I called their operation a business) from putting the present in context by thoroughly, interestingly and, from time to time, entertainingly analyzing the past. A recent article by Mark Sholdice even explores the history of history programs (specifically PhD programs) in the US and Canada. Further exploration of professional and academic networks (Sholdice’s work examines small groups of people working towards common ends and he is “fascinated by elites”) will allow Sholdice to provide important context into how “elite departments” groom leaders in the field.
As you bring historical analysis to your community (and you totally should), here are three things to consider:
1. The Place
Think of the last neighbourhood that you moved to. How did you come to understand its people, buildings, spaces, and culture? I imagine that you were more captivated by stories of the past (even if they were negative and, possibly, scary) than predictive planning for the future; moreover, the future possibilities are almost always defined by building off-of, or transforming, the history of a place. “To lead with a sense of history is not to be a slave to the past but, rather, to acknowledge its power,” argue Seaman Jr. and Smith. For example, whatever happens to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the next 10 years will certainly incorporate the structure of the past. Yes, even the rotten and crumbling bits.
Jane’s Walk, a globally renowned pedestrian exploration of thousands of communities, is a fantastic example of how people can understand the history of their community in order to build – or transform – its strengths and weaknesses into a positive and productive place of the future.
2. The Values and Culture
It doesn’t matter if it’s a company, a school, a government, or a neighbourhood – when it comes to attracting top talent, people want to know that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Folks want to have a clear idea of how to align their talents and interests with the work that needs to be done and the way to do it. As Seaman Jr. and Smith argue, “knowing the history of a group to which we belong…can help us see events, and ourselves, as part of a still unfolding story and of something larger than ourselves.”
Vancity Credit Union reached back through its history to build its current slogan, Make Good Money, as well as to create an important statement that I recently heard the company’s CEO, Tamara Vrooman, state during a panel discussion about banking on values (I’m paraphrasing): where and how we spend our money reflects our values as a community. From onboarding new employees to financing new enterprises, the idea that everyone involved in the Vancity community should Make Good Money offers a lot of clarity for members, employees and the co-operative’s leadership.
3. the Present (and Future) OF YOUR HISTORY
Any story based on historical analysis, however, has to match the present needs, interests and goals of a community. For example, highlighting the War of 1812 might not have been something that a critical mass of Canadians supported, especially when the federal government decided to pour millions of dollars into coins, commercials and displays while cutting funding for the National Archives. Remember, history needn’t be used just for anniversaries and needs to get to the deep, unifying truth of the past in order to inspire a future that resonates with a majority of people.
Apple’s recent move to bring elements of its manufacturing process back to North America offers a better example of how an organization can reach back into its compelling history to align future goals with current reality.
CLOSING | Tell Authentic Stories
When it comes to storytelling, I’m pretty good. And I believe that one of the key factors that makes me a craftsman in the field of yarn-spinning is my authenticity. Even when I exaggerate points that best fit my narrative, dismiss the stuff that doesn’t fit well, stretch data, and/or delve into the realm of selective revisionism, I am consistently genuine and ensure that the history I present gets to the deep truth of the community in question.
Note: by no means do I recommend my method as good academic historical practice; such efforts will not make you popular in peer reviewed journals!
According to Seaman Jr. and Smith, audiences are notoriously skeptical and can “sniff out the inauthentic” when presented an idea by a charismatic, yet irresponsible, leader. The historians discuss the idea of “truthful mythology”, and such a thing must be at the core of the thoughtful and interesting historical analysis that you present to your community in order to inspire positive change for the future.
Thinking about – and learning from – the past might just be your most powerful leadership tool. Employees that ‘get’ the past will likely understand a future build off the history of a place and its people. And, hey, if you are interested in analyzing the history of your community, well, two-thirds of this blogs Editorial staff have a background in history.
Your move, Internet.
Masthead photo courtesy of josef.stuefer’s photostream / Flickr creative commons