I’ve watched a clumsy mistake cause some leaders vast problems recently. I want to describe this mistake and help you avoid it.
It has to do with heritage. Not ethnic or racial heritage, but work heritage. You see, people long to feel themselves as part of forces that move through time. They want to feel united with the people who came before them. They want to belong to purposes that preceded them and will continue after them. They also long for feeling that their work makes a contribution to history, whether it is the history of their company, their people, or their country.
Now, if you show disregard for this sense of history, you will offend people and make them feel under-valued.
I’ve advised a pastor who made this mistake. He took over a church that was decades old but was in trouble. He worked hard in his first year of leadership and made great strides. Then he made the mistake. He held a one-year anniversary celebration. In doing so, he told those faithful stalwarts who had volunteered and written checks and served well for decades that their history didn’t matter. The sense was that the pastor only cared about his history in this church and his young team’s contributions. Many left. Frankly, many of this older, offended tribe were the deep pockets who had funded the church for years. It was a mess, and all because a people’s history was disregarded.
I know of a university that thrived for decades before it went through some tough times. The new president and leadership team who helped the university to rebuild after the tough times had a habit of talking about all that had come before as though it was lesser. Those were the bad days. Those were less heroic people. Only the university today mattered.
Now, it just wasn’t true. Alumni of that university had gone out and accomplished great things—entered Congress, launched stellar medical careers, won literary awards, and started highly profitable firms, to name but a few of their achievements. Similarly, the faculty had sacrificed and served and endured much chaos in order to produce these stellar students. Yet the new administration focused mainly on the present. For them, history began when the new president’s term began. In fact, the new president’s photo adorned nearly every publication as though he was the founder of the institution. It soured the alumni and now the university has a hard time getting these offended grads to support the school.
Why? Because history was cheapened. Because a heroic story was ignored. Because the present was exalted above all else.
We live in a day of rapid leadership turnovers and of generational handoffs at the helms of great companies. Young or new leaders must be careful not to make the mistake I describe above. Consider the history of the people with your firm. Consider their contributions, their hardships, their achievements. Don’t think just in terms of your time with the organization or the present only. Make people feel a part of a recognized, valuable, heroic, and ever-celebrated history. It will transform what you do and help draw the best from those you lead.
It is also honorable, which is what you always want to be as you lead.