Using History as a Leadership Tool

By John L. Ward

Business historians John Seaman and George David Smith wrote a superb article for Harvard Business Review (December 2012) that has particularly great value for family business leaders. Wise leaders can use their company’s history for many benefits:

  • Create a stronger sense of identity for employees ‐ ‐ they are affected with something larger than themselves
  • Show the need and capacity to adapt illustrating such from the past
  • Argue that successful change is possible and that adversity can be overcome with examples from before
  • Promote the enduring values that shape the culture ‐ ‐ especially drawing on stories from before
  • Learn the obstacles to change from understanding the history and culture
  • Broaden perspective when making significant decisions by exploring analogies from before and now

We find family businesses have an especially acute appreciation for history from which they can particularly benefit as outlined above.

The article reinforces some axioms we find well practiced by successful family business leaders:

  • Embrace tradition as a way to prove that, indeed, the company has a long history of change ‐ ‐ a tradition of innovation
  • When leadership changes, emphasize the platform of values that don’t change before promoting a new vision
  • Find those authentic values of the past that will enable the new behaviors for success ‐ ‐ reinterpreting their meaning in the contemporary context

Interestingly, the primary example used to argue these principles was the 3 generations of leadership history at IBM. The values regenerated to support a new future were:

  • Focus on customer needs and
  • customer service and
  • long term relationships and pursue
  • break through innovation

The authors conclude that IBM’s leadership, “found in IBM’s history a usable past ‐ ‐ one that helped them…persuade people to embrace necessary solutions to deep–seated problems, but also grasp the nature of these problems in the first place.”

As Seaman and Smith well show, history is a leadership tool more than an anniversary with “balloons and fireworks”.

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