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History as Do or Die for Leading Change

Implementing Organizational Change

An understanding of an organization’s history is particularly important to people who lead significant organization change efforts. Leaders can use history to frame the change effort within the context of the organization’s vision or strategy. Leading change specialists, such as Harvard Business School’s John Kotter and Columbia’s Social-Organizational Psychology Program Director Warner Burke, emphasize the role of leaders in developing and communicating a vision that focuses and motivates collective action by followers.

How does a leader focus and motivate followers? There are multiple ways, but Harvard leadership scholar Howard Gardner identifies story telling as a key mechanism. Successful leaders captivate followers in part with stories about where the organization comes from, and where they are headed. Effectiveness thus involves fit: “the story needs to make sense to audience members at this particular historical moment, in terms of where they have been and where they would like to go” (Gardner, 1995, p.14).

Successful long-term change efforts involve leaders working to make sure the core theme of the change vision relates to, and is consistent with, the historical core values of the organization. Organizational theorists and consultants David Nadler and Michael Tushman refer to this as “organizational resonance.” Organization history, or OHx, is thus critical for developing effective visions and ensuring that change efforts have organizational resonance. (By the way, if you’d like to read more about storytelling and leadership, see LeaderNation blogger Joaquin Roca’s recent post here).

So what happens if a leader neglects to tie in a change effort with the organization’s history? Failure to acknowledge the past can lead to significant resistance. The work of William Bridges highlights the need first and foremost for change efforts to acknowledge endings, which involves letting go of the past and of previous ways of doing things. Leaders of change need to be sensitive to, and not rush people who need closure with, the past. By providing ways for people to disengage with the past, leaders help people focus on the change and the future. I’ll end this blog post with a dramatic example, courtesy of W.W. Burke (1994).

Funeral at NASA

Due to the emergence of new technologies, a large change initiative at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) required the termination of a massive rocket program. Several hundred scientists, engineers and technicians, who had worked on the program for nearly two decades, were impacted. The center director who was leading the change held a brief ceremony for all these people, that symbolized the “death and burial” of the program. The centerpiece of the ceremony was a table draped in black cloth, which was positioned on the lawn in front of the administration building. When the table was uncovered, revealing a replica of a rocket, senior leaders made brief speeches extolling the former program and the people who contributed to it over the years. Everyone drank a toast, and the rocket was then covered again, symbolically buried. The 30-minute ceremony ended with a short explanation of the new program, which involved solar energy for propulsion in space.

Clearly, not every change initiative needs such a dramatic departure from the past. However, acknowledging an organization’s history helps people understand conceptually and emotionally how their mission builds on what’s come prior. And when leading change, leaders need to do everything they can to enlist the full participation of their followers.


Burke, W.W. (1994). Organization Development: A Process of Learning and Changing (2nd edition). New York, NY: Addison-Wesley.

Gardner, H. (1995). Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Nadler, D. A., & Tushman, M. L. (1989). Organizational Frame Bending: Principles For Managing Reorientation. The Academy of Management Executive, 3(3),194-204.


Thanks Yaron,

It is interesting to observe that people who are preoccupied with the past, are paralyzed by fear that the past will repeat itself.

Those who project into the future often nurse unrealistic hopes of what a changed future will produce.

Living in the present, through the practice of mindfulness, would seem to be the best way of experiencing constant change and welcoming all that comes with it.

I appreciate your insights Ian. I had not thought about it until you pointed it out, but upon reflection I have noticed that some people tend to focus too heavily on the past or the future, rather than on the present. Can you say more about what you mean by mindfulness?

I recently read a book by Australian researcher Gordon Spence called "New Directions in Evidence Based Coaching." In Chapter 6 he discusses the impact of Mindfulness Training on Goal Attainment and Wellbeing. I suspect you'll find it interesting!

Thanks for this blog. I'm sending it to my son (manager, engineer, scientist) at Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL/NASA) in Pasadena, CA.
"Endings" can be critical to moving forward. Some times we do have to say "goodbye" to what we've known, before we can say "hello" to what we do not yet know. Such ritualized "goodbyes" can be empowering for organizations, teams, and individuals for moving through transitions from the no-longer to the not-yet, and for mobilizing change initiatives.

Thank you Ronald! Given his credentials I'd love to hear your son's reactions. I'd also be happy to send you or your son a paper I wrote on the role of organization history on leading change. Much of it is similar to this 4-part blog series but it includes more examples and academic references. I'm happy to report the paper just won an award from the OD Network.

The above discussion directed my thoughts to a psychological contruct that Everett Shostrom attemped to assess in the Personal Orientation Inventory (POI) he called "Time Competence" (a proposed dimension of self-actualization). The general idea was that self-actualizing people had strong and healthy connections between the past, present, and future (they were easily accessed these, they were not split off from each other, and they were connected and integrated).

In terms of change competency in organizations, we could view each person as possessing a measurable amount of the attribute of time competence and the organization (both as a whole and the various subsets within the organization) as also having a measureable amount of time competence.

The ceremony you described was a moment when the leader connected the past, present, and future, and in the process increased the time competence of the people and the organization.

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