The good old days: why glorious pasts still get in the way of good decision making today

3 minute read

Historical biases hinder contemporary leadership and strategy. International strategist and author David Ross unpacks the impact of ‘glorious pasts’ on modern decision making and organisational success

An illustration of a pastoral scene in sunshine with people in period clothes to represent the glorious path on the left and a dystopian view of office workers on the right for the complex future

I can still remember the night, many years ago. that ‘the father of peace practice’, Norwegian Johan Galtung, facilitated me having a massive epiphany as he introduced the concept of ‘glorious pasts’. It was very late on a Saturday night. In fact, as I was taking the call while on holidays – from New Zealand. I was cramped up listening to him via a video call from a tiny motel bathroom so that I didn’t wake my family up. 

Otherwise I would have needed his services to facilitate peace. But I digress. 

I had never heard anyone talk about glorious pasts, and certainly not in the organisational context. Nevertheless, it is a concept that can create significantly adverse ramifications for long-term viability. 

Glorious pasts refer to a mindset, bias, almost a myth, that paints a particular past too rosily. It seeks to maximise the story of the benefits attained,  implying that everyone experienced the glories. Yet the accompanying desires are often dubious. 

You see, the mindset ignores the fact that many did not experience the celebrated fortunes. Many may have suffered for various reasons, yet that doesn’t align nicely with the overarching narrative. Similarly, glorious pasts undermine the many positives that have occurred since ‘the past’. It creates a seismic bias.

They are often present in countries or even communities. The Brexit decision, among other things, appears to be a longing to return to the glorious past of the British Empire. Making the US great again has similar connotations. But for whom was it great?

Something confronting this way comes

Nevertheless, of concern for you should be that they are also all too present within organisations. It should be a concern because there still, too often, is a dubious desire by decision makers to revert back to that ‘glory’, believing that it will enable a glorious future. 

It is reflective of an almost wilful ignorance of evidence, of not appreciating the context faced. And no matter what your job is, context is king. And look at the shift being experienced in our context. 

The 20th century’s story of certainty within society has crumbled.  

We are witnessing the exponential rise of artificial intelligence (AI). Stakeholders are more coordinated, more sophisticated and more polarised regarding what they expect from organisations. We can anticipate ecosystem collapse, more frequent extreme weather events and impacts on supply chains. Regional conflicts are affecting us all. These interconnected issues not only facilitate economic instability but also make the organisational context increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).

Make no mistake, normal has left the building, requiring leaders to be more agile, anticipatory and adaptive in response.

Just what will hold your organisation back?

Whether you have considered it or not, the decisions made within your organisation now influence the future. We can anticipate not only witnessing mass extinctions of wildlife within the next five to 10 years but also of organisations in response to the disruptions faced and to be faced.

To even ensure that the decisions made are well-informed, there is a need for… let’s call it a duality of awareness. Organisational leaders and managers need to be aware of the context within their organisation – seeking out diverse perspectives –as well as the context outside HQ’s front door. It is time to be strategically mindful of AI, climate change, declining organisational trust, further economic uncertainties, to name a few, and anticipate the ramifications – individual and cumulative – to your organisation.

However, glorious pasts create a blind spot in clearly understanding the context in terms of the here and now as well as what is emerging. That makes for poor decision-making. Just look at Kodak. Or Nokia.

I see glorious pasts playing a huge role in the lack of genuine effort to date within organisations in response to climate change. This is despite the existential threats to organisational viability. “Oh, if only we could go back to the glory days when Man had mastery over the environment!”  

I see it, too, in the common response to the pandemic-led work-from-home arrangements. Despite this now being embedded in how we do things around here, many leaders still yearn to return to those heady days “when we treated them as just another cog in the machine.” Similarly, in response to the extraordinary speed of change now experienced, we witness leaders working harder to retain centralised control in their hierarchical organisations.

Despite the evidence glorious pasts continue to deprive so many organisations of an ability to successfully confront the future. It is critical to reflect on it in relation to the disruption faced.

It is critical to realise that what got you to here won’t successfully get you to ‘there’.

Reflections

  • Where have you come across a glorious past? What did that look like?
  • How could the adverse impacts of that example have been prevented?
  • What implications do glorious pasts have for your people & culture team? 
  • What capabilities do leaders in your organisation now need to successfully manage this and the disruptions faced?

David Ross, pictured below, is an international strategist, founder of Phoenix Strategic Management and author of Confronting the Storm: Regenerating Leadership and Hope in the Age of Uncertainty

David Ross

Published 27 March 2024
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