organizational ghosts

Organizational ghosts: admired former leaders who continue to have outsized influence after they’ve departed. (Photo by Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)

PROVO, Utah — There’s no need to call the Ghostbusters for this type of paranormal activity. Brigham Young University researchers have embarked on a unique form of ghost hunting, as they are on a quest to uncover what they refer to as “organizational ghosts.” These ethereal figures aren’t supernatural, but they exert a powerful influence within organizations, study authors say.

Organizational ghosts describe former leaders who continue to shape an organization’s values and identity even after they have left. Think of iconic figures like Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, or Steve Jobs. These figures, akin to the ghosts of folklore, linger and haunt the organization in a positive way, guiding its actions and decisions.

“Organizational ghosts can manifest themselves in a number of different ways,” says Jeff Bednar, an associate professor at the BYU Marriott School of Business, in a university release. “It could be in the form of someone asking themself if a former leader would be proud of what they’re doing, or they might imagine how a former leader would approach a certain task before attempting it themselves.”

These organizational ghosts transcend their physical presence, becoming immortalized within the organization’s culture, perpetuating practices, and living on through collective memory. Recent research reveals that organizational ghosts play crucial roles in safeguarding organizations from risky decisions, legitimizing current leaders’ actions, or diminishing the influence of new leaders and rival organizations.

Bednar’s personal experience with an organizational ghost occurred during his 2005 internship at Walmart headquarters. He observed that the walls of the building were adorned with pictures and quotes of Walmart founder Sam Walton, who passed away in 1992. Employees frequently invoked Walton’s name and shared stories about him, which piqued Bednar’s curiosity about the enduring impact of leaders on an organization, even years after their death.

Walmart
(Credit: Openverse)

“People in meetings were always talking about how they should try to do things the way Sam would have,” notes Bednar. “It fascinated me, the impact and influence a leader could have on an organization even after they’re gone.”

Researchers also dispel the notion that only the founders of organizations can become organizational ghosts. Any leader who profoundly embodies an organization’s values can leave a lasting legacy that endures beyond their tenure.

At BYU, past prophets like President Spencer W. Kimball and legendary football coach LaVell Edwards serve as prime examples of organizational ghosts. Kimball’s 1975 “Second Century Address” continues to guide the university, while Edwards is often cited as a mentor by current coach Kalani Sitake.

These influential figures aren’t just remembered; they are often preserved through physical artifacts, practices, and even spaces named after them. For example, Edwards has a football stadium bearing his name. The mere mention of these organizational ghosts can “activate” their influence, guiding current members in decision-making processes.

But the phenomenon of “ghost hunting” isn’t confined to academics. Everyone should be aware of the ghosts in their lives and the ways they continue to shape their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

“Which ghosts are most influential in your life? And how do they impact the way you think, feel, and behave?” says Bednar. “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. New leaders need to be especially conscious of those that have gone before them as they are making decisions that affect others in organizations.”

The study is published in the Academy of Management Journal.

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