Leadership Lessons from DC: Past Shapes the Present

The nineteen-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln towered over me as I contemplated in awe the brutal history of the Civil War.

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” sang out from a small TV in The National Museum of American History as the 1971 Coke commercial brought back warm childhood memories.

Past monumental Supreme Court decisions flashed through my mind as I sat in the very room where Judges heard arguments and contemplated complex choices.

These are a few of the many history-related moments that remain with me from our family trip to Washington D.C. Each of these experiences catapulted my thoughts to the past — a past of the United States that is built on great victories, tragic conflicts, joyful celebrations, new adventures, and difficult choices that have shaped the current state of this nation.

The past shapes the current state of a team and organization, for good or bad. This is a truth that must be understood by thoughtful leaders to help people find value, work well with one another, and get results.

“Black Tuesday” was the name our team gave to a disheartening event that took place a number of years ago. Our manager called the team into the conference room and gave us the bad news about the financial state of our business. It was followed by animated commands by our manager to work harder with less. We walked out stunned and wondering about the future of our employment.

Another experience I recall was when our team pulled off a huge training event for 500 people, under unfavorable conditions, and succeeded. It felt great, and the team celebrated.

Both of these events shaped the culture, motivation, and confidence of the team. I imagine you can think of memorable moments in your work experience that have shaped the current state. There are deflating and uplifting moments each day. It is what we do with these moments that really matter. Too often, we ignore the moments and move on. We blow past the deflating moments because we do not want to deal with them, and we fool ourselves by thinking everything will be fine. We forget the uplifting moments because there are a hundred other items on the check list, and we do not take the time to authentically celebrate a victory.

Leaders must acknowledge the pivotal moments that uplift or deflate the team, facilitate dialogue around them, and use these moments to intentionally craft a team culture that helps people feel valued, connect to others, and get results.

Application Exercise

Bring your team together for a conversation.

Exercise 1

  • Ask the team to identify uplifting moments for the team and share their experiences.
  • Ask the team how these experience have shaped the team.

Exercise 2

  • Ask the team to identify deflating moments for the team and share their experiences.
  • Ask the team how these experience have shaped the team.

Exercise 3

  • Based on the previous two exercises, ask the team, “What ‘shape’ would we like our team to continue to mold towards?”