Ghost hunters are typically associated with equipment like sensitive cameras and audio recorders. But Brigham Young University business professor Jeff Bednar doesn’t need any of that technology for the kinds of ghosts he’s hunting.
BYU Communications reported that Bednar and Jacob Brown, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, recently researched “organizational ghosts”: admired former leaders who embody an organization’s values and who influence a company long after they’re gone. Well-known examples include Walt Disney, Coco Chanel and Steve Jobs.
At BYU, examples of organizational ghosts include President Spencer W. Kimball, whose 1975 “Second Century Address” about the future of BYU continues to guide the school; and Hall of Fame football coach LaVell Edwards, who led BYU to a national championship in 1984 and is often cited as a mentor by current coach Kalani Sitake.
Bednar and Brown’s research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, found that organizational ghosts can safeguard organizations from risky decisions, legitimize the actions of current leaders, or devalue new leaders or other organizations.
They also found that organizational ghosts aren’t limited to founders. Rather, any leader who makes a profound impact embodying the values of an organization can leave a lasting legacy.
Bednar said organizational ghosts manifest in a number of ways, from someone asking themselves if a former leader would be proud of what they’re doing to imagining how a former leader would approach a task.
Organizational ghosts are also preserved through physical artifacts and practices, such as a planting a tree or naming a building in a former leader’s honor. This can then “activate” their legacies in the minds of current leaders.
Bednar became interested in organizational ghosts when he interned at Walmart in 2005. The buildings he worked in had pictures of and quotes from Walmart founder Sam Walton, and Bednar said employees constantly referenced Walton, even though he died in 1992.
“People in meetings were always talking about how they should try to do things the way Sam would have,” Bednar said. “It fascinated me, the impact and influence a leader could have on an organization even after they’re gone.”
Bednar encouraged people to consider the ghosts in their own lives and how they’re influenced by them.
“For me, one of the most important leadership lessons from this study was the importance of being aware of the historical dynamics that are always operating in the background in organizations,” he said. “New leaders need to be especially conscious of those that have gone before them as they are making decisions that affect others in organizations.”