“I will honor and respect the past, but I will not live in it.”

I made this vow to my bride Donna on March 13th, 1992. Even better, she made it to me a few moments later. As the second and one-way-or-another final marriage for both of us, we acknowledged the baggage and unfinished business we carried from the old days into these new ones. Intentions to start fresh were not enough; we needed to make a serious commitment to which we could hold ourselves accountable.

22 years later: so far, so good.

Long Shadows

The more time I spend managing others, the more I find myself returning to this vow. It seems that no matter which organization I’m involved in, the sins and virtues of the past hold unseen yet powerful influence over the present. We consider the future constantly, but the long shadows of the past seem to occupy a ton of our time and attention. See if these sound familiar:

  • “But our Founder will never go for it.”
  • “Remember when Sally tried that right before she was laid off?”
  • “We are stewards of a great company here; let’s not mess it up.”
  • “Yes that system is broken, but we spent a small fortune on it.”
  • “It’s like trying to turn the Queen Mary here; don’t even bother.”
  • “Thanks for that cool idea. Let me explain our tradition.”
  • “You’re right, we lose money on that service, but it was Bruce’s pet project.”
  • “Do that and it just won’t be the same around here anymore.”

Did you catch it, the one thing these have in common? It’s the pervasive sense of defeat.

Fresh Starts

It’s no accident that startup businesses get described with words like gutsy, nimble, bold, responsive, and energetic. I believe the absence of a past history enables the players to tackle their challenges without loyalty or prejudice. Years ago I had the chance to build a new division of a ceramic tile company from scratch. It was a heady and productive time as we rapidly figured out how to make fields of tile in any shape and color a designer could imagine. Nobody was around to tell us it couldn’t be done, so we did it.

Maple Leaf Inspired Tile Floor and Hot Air Balloons Tile Floor

Maple Leaf Inspired Tile Floor and Hot Air Balloons Tile Wall

Best of Both Worlds

Ah, but most startups fail – and my tile division was (sort of) one of them. This happens for various reasons, not least is the lack of a firm foundation. This platform, perhaps a bit too firm, is what most of us in established organizations must both overcome and leverage.

Some of your employees and managers may live in the past… but their families need their paychecks right now. Suppliers and bankers need to be paid in the real world. No doubt your customers are relying on you to stay grounded in today, if not tomorrow. Your mission and stakeholders compel you forward.

If you tire of shadow-boxing with the past, introduce this language into your organization:“Let’s agree to honor and respect the past, but not to live in it.” It’s simple and powerful.

There are countless resources out there on how to successfully manage through change. But we will go nowhere until and unless the past is respected, thanked, and told to keep quiet.

Sustained Change

ctaods One of my biggest first-marriage mistakes was that I made a commitment decision once for all time: a goal line in my mind had been reached. I just assumed that we’d stay married, come hell or high water. But when the high water came, I discovered we had not built a lasting relationship one day at a time.

The same lesson holds true in organizational health. Leaders often fail when they think that major decisions are enough, yet neglect the daily care and feeding of relationships.

Give the past its due but don’t live there. Decide each day to live in the present and build a stronger future. In no time, you’ll be celebrating 22 years of victory.

Bruce loves to help people overcome challenges, particularly in leadership, interpersonal relationships and trust. He’s a noted speaker, author, active church member and community volunteer. Bruce’s day job has been to lead RBB since 2001, becoming Owner in 2007.

Bruce is blessed to share his life with his wife Donna and their three wonderful children: daughters Kelly and Kara, and son Kirk. As time permits he enjoys golf, writing and learning how to live in the country.