History is littered with the corpses of businesses which wanted to own the future. Where once were mighty corporate HQs lie only ruins and footnotes in the history books of business. But the past can tell us a lot. Normally we ignore these lessons thinking we know better than our ancestors – we should heed the lessons not ignore them.

So what can businesses today learn from the past about what it takes to own the future?

Last summer, I went to Greece with my eldest son, to tour the ancient sites. Mostly, these were ruins – piles of stones at Mycenae, Sparta and Delphi. Ozymandian monuments to once great civilisations that own only the past. But there were some places which contained far more than mere piles of stones. The single quality which unified these exceptional sites, which separated them out from the others, was that they represented an idea – they all had an informing purpose. They represented something that lives on in our minds, generation after generation – something which endures long after the impermanence of solid stone. Greatest of all these is Olympia – seat of the ancient Olympic Games: an idea which ignites the imagination of the world every four years to this day and celebrates all that is excellent about the human spirit.

You could see the Olympic ideal light up in my son’s imagination as we walked into the ancient stadium where, for 1200 years, the greatest athletes in the world competed with one another. This is what owning the future is really all about. To own the future you must call on something deep inside all of us, something timeless and of appeal to generation after generation. Something which connects with our hearts. The question is, can this be done in business?

Too many businesses are busy building the ruins of the future. They are either busy chasing the next fad so they stay current. Or they are complacently looking on as arriviste start-ups gobble up their market by changing it beyond all recognition. Too few businesses understand how to adapt but remain timeless – be current but also true to an idea. To have a purpose which consistently connects to their customers and their employees, now and in the future. But they need one because purpose produces profit – not the other way around. The moment profit becomes the purpose, the whole edifice begins to crumble into ruin.

To test if your business has a future built on purpose ask yourself  three questions:

  1. Does it STAND UP for what it believes in?
  2. Does it STAND OUT in the way it delivers what it believes in?
  3. Does it STAND FIRM in its purpose? Even if doing so costs.

STAND UP: Do you, your team and your customers know what your firm stand for? For the Olympic Games it is to be a beacon of excellence – a showcase for the human spirit.

STAND OUT: Do you consistently deliver against this purpose in a differentiated way?  There were many Games and competitions in the Ancient World, but only one Olympic Games held every four years, and all wars between City States were suspended for the duration of the Games.

STAND FIRM: And do you stand firm, even if it is very difficult to do so? The Romans, who had conquered Greece, were refused permission to compete for 100 years until the organisers felt that the Romans understood the Olympic ethos (the Romans wanted to open it up to their professional athletes). That cannot have been an easy conversation to have.

Purpose is powerful.

An idea cannot be ruined even if all around it lies in ruins – as happened to the ancient Olympic site. An idea ignites. And it is your job, dear leader, to identify that idea and carry its flame. That way lies the future. Otherwise, all you are building is  a broken statue, headless, only the legs still standing, surveying a desert landscape with the legend “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. And you will join the ranks of businesses, nations and cities which scatter the landscape with lifeless stones.


David Kean
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