Family Affair

If your family is coming apart, perhaps you can keep it together with a good story.

That was the message from Bruce Feiler in a fascinating New York Times article on Sunday that explored the surprising power of narrative. Feiler reported that Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, has found that the more children know about their family and its history, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem.”

When children have a sense of heritage, he added, they “know they belong to something bigger than themselves”—a concept that many believe holds true in an organizational context, as well (which is why Feiler drew on “trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military . . . for making teams function better”).

If knowing your family history is a source of strength, then Peter Drucker could thank his kin for their good recordkeeping. In his memoir, Adventures of a Bystander, Drucker recalled striking up a friendship with Willem Paarboom, an eccentric Dutchman who loved all things Dutch.

“I had known all along that my family had originally been printers of religious books in The Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Drucker wrote. But Paarboom “traced my pedigree back, climbed up and down my family tree and finally found not only in what Dutch library the books printed by the family firm were still being kept, but when and where in Amsterdam it had had its office and printing shop.”

Personal heritage aside, Drucker felt it was the duty of any sensible manager to be aware of the unique history of his or her organization or group and find ways to harness it.

If management, in other words, does not succeed in putting to work the specific cultural heritage of a country and of a people, social and economic development cannot take place,” Drucker explained in Technology, Management and Society. And, as he wrote in that same book, “History has never been satisfied to be a mere inventory of what is dead and gone—that, indeed, is antiquarianism. True history always aims at helping us understand ourselves, at helping us make what will be.”

What do you think? Is narrative something that benefits all organizations, from clan to corporation?

1938 WPA poster By Kenneth Whitley via Wikimedia Commons
1938 WPA poster By Kenneth Whitley via Wikimedia Commons