Recently I asked an audience, "How well do you manage your past?"
It’s a strange question on the surface. After all, the past is past. There’s not much we can do to manage it.
Viewed from another perspective, however, the past resides only in one place, namely, in our memory. What we do with these memories, how we manage them, has immense implications for what our future will be like.
That’s because this memory of the past is not just a collection of events. It’s an intermixture of events overlaid with our interpretation of them — the meaning that we impose on them. We cannot change the events of the past, but we can choose to put a different meaning on them. And when we do, the past (and how we feel about it) changes for us.
For instance, we can choose to look at adverse moments in our past as failures or as learning experiences. The first perspective adds to self-blame and self-doubt. The second one adds to our reservoir of wisdom and equips us for greater impact in the future.
Thus, the way we envision the past has telling influence on the promise of our future.
Since leaders are future-oriented, it’s incumbent on them to “manage the past” well. And if managing the past is vital for leaders personally, it’s no less vital for the organizations that they lead.
Organizations, too, have a past. Again, it only exists in memory, in this case, the collective memory of the organization. Leaders who manage the interpretation of this collective memory well add leverage to what the future may hold for the entire enterprise.
It seems to me that there are three distinct ways in which leaders manage the past to make good use of it.
- First, they use the past for learning.They learn from both the things that went well and the things that did not go so well. They neither bask unreflectively in the glow of their accomplishments nor wallow in the disappointment of their setbacks. They simply look to the past to gain knowledge and wisdom. They continually ask, "What did we learn from this experience that will help us do even better in the future?"
- Second, leaders look to the past to determine the trajectory that their organization is on. If this trajectory remains unchanged, does it portend desirable results for the future? If not, what is being done in the present to change the trajectory? This kind of dialogue with the past is fundamental to strategic thinking.
- Third, great leaders use the past to create a sense of heritage within their team or organization. They make a point of providing an atmosphere in which the very best things from this heritage continue to prevail. Few things bind people together psychologically more effectively than a valued, shared heritage.
Thus, learning from the past is essential for improvement. Evaluating the trajectories of the past is critical for strategic planning. And maintaining the best from the past in the form of heritage is vital to morale. As a leader, how well are you managing your past?