How often have you found yourself on a street or in a building named after some once important person, and realized that you didn’t have the faintest idea who this person was and what he or she had accomplished?
A typical human career spans no more than three or four dozen years. Unless you are graced with true genius, that’s not an awful lot of time to have a lasting impact on the world. As a result, only a few very rare individuals remain genuinely relevant beyond their lifetimes, and even fewer still across centuries. But while very few people even live to be a hundred, it’s quite common for organizations of various kinds – monasteries, universities, hospitals, guilds and companies, for instance – to continue operating without interruption for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
Around the globe, some organizations are now stupendously old, tracing their origins back to medieval times and even further. Quite evidently, such organizations have found a way of reinventing themselves throughout the ages, and of remaining relevant to generation after generation of what we would now refer to as “stakeholders”. If they hadn’t, they simply wouldn’t have survived this long.
If such a long-lived organization has been, on balance, a force for good, then there is much about its longevity to celebrate. After all, an ability to contribute positively to society generation after generation through the collective action of innumerable (yet mostly anonymous) people should be grounds for celebration.
The ability that human organizations possess to carry out this kind of concerted action across time is a great force multiplier. For those of us whose personal influence is not destined to extend to distant generations, pitching in, in our own small way, offers us a means of contributing towards an enduring legacy, something endowed with meaning beyond ourselves.
Collaboration across extremely long time spans requires a powerful and collective sense of mission or purpose – think of the generations of workers who once built the great cathedrals of Europe. It’s about finding meaning in something that transcends the specific tasks that occupy us at any given moment, for our everyday efforts, on their own, are rarely very exciting or glamorous.
Great longevity, of course, is not foreordained. Human organizations, just like people, can easily die and fade from memory. In the case of companies, most in fact die quite young and without any accomplishments whatsoever to their names. Whether they are young or old, large or small, the ways companies disappear are numerous and range from the benign to the traumatic: From the simple decision by an aging owner to cease operations in order to enjoy retirement, to the upheaval of mergers and amalgamations, to the long agony of growing irrelevance, or the sudden collapse of bankruptcy.
Should anybody care? I’ve watched with complete indifference as some companies went out of business, yet felt deeply saddened in other cases to see a trusted business or once-mighty icon of commerce shut its doors for the last time. In some respects, this is not unlike what we experience as humans. People come and go, touch others and fade away: The old Olympic athlete that young people have never heard about; the once-mighty senior executive who retires and is soon forgotten by most. And organizations that fail to adapt dissolve into irrelevance.
As for me, I believe in the power of human organizations of all kinds to contribute to society in a positive and meaningful way, both today and for the benefit of generations to come. And if contributing to any human endeavor through years of efforts and dedication is to account for such an important part of my life – whether it be the company I work for, the venerable judo club I belong to or any other –, I would have my efforts count for something and I would do my best to leave that small patch of something bigger in better shape than I found it, with the hope that through my actions, however anonymous they are to become, I helped to keep things good and strong for those who will follow on the path.