Looking to the Past to be More Effective in the Future

I am on an extended business trip in France that has necessitated me staying over the weekend.  A German colleague of mine invited me to visit him at his home in Berlin, as he knew my interest to explore this very vibrant city.  I took him up on the invitation as it would break up my week and refresh me for my second week of client work in France. As I write this I am flying back to Paris after a wonderful time in Berlin capped off by visiting a museum exhibit called Permagnon, which is a newly excavated city from Greco-Roman times.  Perhaps it is the beauty of this sunny warm September day, or the fact that I am tired in a very relaxed way that on my flight back to Paris I am reflecting on the lessons historical events can teach leaders of today.

While I am not particularly a museum buff from the standpoint of being a student of history however I do enjoy what a good museum visit does to me, and particularly one on the Roman Empire.  While viewing the architecture, the pottery, the statues and countless other artifacts I keep trying to imagine the actual artists, laborers, aristocrats and others who actually touched and handled these very items.  I have been to Rome to experience what they have preserved, Cairo to see how the Roman Empire spread there (something I didn’t realize) and of course now Berlin with the Permagnon exhibit.  I certainly come away from these experiences with a sense of awe and wonder about how life was lived in these grand empire centuries ago.  It also makes me question what we have learned, if anything, as a human race from our history.  I don’t know enough about the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire to comment, although the demise of any civilization or corporation for that matter is usually because of the self-satisfied arrogance of the leaders and/or the inward-oriented bureaucracy of the enterprise that lost touch with its markets, customer and employees was not agile enough to adapt to changing times.

To translate this to a current leadership consideration, I am not always certain that there is sufficient appreciation and empathy for the past by executive leaders who take over companies and divisions from their incumbents and feel the urgency to ‘make an impact’ immediately.  Do they take the time to thoroughly understand the foundational past of the company and what this means for the future of their organization?  Are there lessons and insights that lie in the rubble of the past that can be interpreted anew to ensure the path forward is connected to these strong foundations?     George Land, author of Grow or Die (1988) and a transformational thought leader from the late 80s said it best I think.  He said organizations that create sustainable success and navigate change do three things well: 

  1. They know where they come from.
  2. They know what they want to go.
  3. They know how to learn on the way. 

It seems it is the learning “disability” of leaders and that causes mistakes to be repeated and often with dire consequences for the organization and the leader him or herself.

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