Business leaders don’t care about history.

Whereas political leaders frequently make reference to historical figures, business leaders are much less likely to invoke this kind of history directly. Of course, they know the history of their industry and are clear on what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. Thus, references to historical success formulae (i.e. going for market share in a new category) and historical errors (i.e. not letting foreign competition attack the home market) are common, but references to historical leaders are not. In part, this is because it is the ethos of modern business to always be at the forefront of technological and economic change, and references to historical figures in politics or business would clash with that ethos; in part, this is also because business leaders rightly hesitate to compare themselves with historical leaders, particularly those who have amassed a lot of power. And yet, business leaders generally do care very much about who and what comes after them, and, on this question, cultural history has a lot to offer.

Depending on where they are from and what kind of schooling they have had, business leader will have different stories and archetypes in the back of their minds when they are considering succession. In Judeo-Christian settings, the succession of King David casts a long shadow, while in Islamic settings, the succession of Mohammed is essential to understanding people and attitudes; in English speaking countries, the discouraging tale of King Lear is never far from the surface, while in China, the disastrous succession intrigue that led to the downfall of the Qin dynasty is well-known. In daily affairs, these stories are irrelevant, but with age and when the time comes to think about succession, they reemerge, as mileposts or as deterrents. They may or may not be explicitly referred to, but they are alive in the minds of leaders and the people around them.

Business may have little to do with history, but succession is about history, particularly so in family and founder-led businesses. For the departing leader more than anybody else, history can loom very large, as he or she fades into the organization’s past. Not surprisingly, the departing leader would rather be remembered for leaving behind an organization that is intact and united behind the successor, than an organization that is unstable and internally split. Better to be remembered as a King David than as a King Lear.

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