Half a History

Do you know what a precedent is? Likely you do. For those a little foggy on the term, permit me to describe. But after I do, I want to warn you about the danger of precedent as the basis of how you understand—and much more importantly—use history in your life and leadership. But first things first.

What’s a precedent?

A precedent is, according to my quick search, “an earlier action or event that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.”

Got it?

Typically, we think of precedent in law. The lawyers and judge in a trial will cite previous court rulings as precedents for their legal position. Precedent is at the heart of law across much of the world.


But I think we tend to default to using history as precedent in far more situations than we realize. Conversations about a controversial action, event, decision, or behavior in the present moment will often pivot on someone citing a precedent for it in the past. The precedent will be used to justify its acceptance and allowance in today’s world. The precedent helps comfort people in embracing change.

Precedent can go in the opposite direction, too. I met with someone recently who talked about resistance to change inside the organization. He dismissed such resistance because, he said, other people in earlier times in the organization had used the same argument. His point to me was that the precedence of such an argument meant that it wasn’t unique to today. The hint in his comment was that precedence undermined the quality of their input. Their position wasn’t tenable because it wasn’t genuinely unique to now.

I say all this to caution you about freezing the past in place. A precedent stops time and holds it there. It’s then lifted up and dropped—plopped is probably a better word—in the present to make a point. In my River construct, such a technique is akin to extracting a water droplet from the River and sealing it in a vial. The vial is brought out to prove something when needed. But is the vial really the River?

The past as precedent is half a history.

I think the better approach, the more useful, holistic, and complete approach, is to keep the flow and movement of time. You need to know how the story went, its shifting and tumbling this way and that. The interaction of different elements are part of what happened. There is the drama, the power, of the past. There is the value.

Knowing the flow of the story and how time’s movement makes the story what it is play a vital role in using history in your leadership. You’ll see choices and options hidden from others. You’ll be able to make connections and linkages that don’t occur to others. You’ll have a much stronger sense of when speed is possible and when the stationary is best. Each of these advantages for you as a leader mutiply as benefits to your followers.

None of this is to say that precedents are useless. Obviously, they’re not. Keep your vials, they’re handy. I do want you to know, though, that history is more than precedent. It is the flow of time. Get out on the River and learn what it means.

Hiprecedent doesn’t work well. History does.