It was Karl Marx who once wrote that “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” He was talking about nations, of course, but the principle is also true of the organization you lead.
People come into the world with an innate desire to feel part of something that precedes them, that comes before them but flows through them and powers them into the future. Think of how the people you know speak of their nation, their ethnic tribe, or perhaps their university. The heritage—all the years that came before and are filled with deep meaning—inspires and animates people.
In fact, think about the current genealogy craze. My wife and I listen to how our friends speak of their genealogical discoveries and we are amazed at how it affects them. We also like watching the TV shows in which famous people are told about their ancestors. It’s stunning the way it changes them right there on the screen. An accomplished actor can be reduced to tears by simply hearing that one of his ancestors died for a noble cause. The show ends with that actor somehow more resolved to live a noble life himself.
Great leaders understand this. When Winston Churchill wanted to inspire England against Nazism, he didn’t just speak of what was but also of what had been. He extolled the history and virtues of his “island nation.” He spoke of the character of previous generations. He assured his listeners that equal character dwelled in them.
In the same way, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address does not begin with a description of the opening volley of the Battle of Gettysburg, but rather with the founding fathers some “four score and seven years ago.” Why? Because Lincoln knew that overlaying the meaning of our national heritable upon that terrible battle would inspire for generations. He understood how people are made.
I could go on with examples but more important is that you make heritage part of your leadership arsenal. Know the past. Package it. Extol it. Make sure it lives in those you lead.
I have a friend who owns a pest control company. He heard me say in a speech that termites do more damage in the U.S. than storms. Though his company is fairly new, my friend began telling his workers that they are a vanguard against unseen forces of destruction. He told them they are needed, that they are patriots, and that they are part of a noble profession. He even did research into pest control history and began telling fascinating tales that inspired his team and made them more productive. He gave his people a professional heritage.
Another CEO I know laces his talks to his company with stories from the family heritage of his employees. By the time his workers hear about how the Vietnamese exec’s parents were “boat people” and how the Jewish administrator’s grandparents escaped gas chambers and how the white southern janitor’s father helped break up the Klan—well, let’s just say they’re almost willing to die for each other. They are certainly willing to work productively for the good of the whole.
How can you make heritage part of your leadership arsenal? What are the stories? What’s the noble past? How does something valuable come down to the current generation? That’s your gold. Use it. Expand on it. Embed it. It will elevate you and all you lead.