In today’s fast-paced business environment, we breathlessly race ahead to the next challenge before the dust settles on the previous one. We are encouraged to push forward and to never look back. In our desire to move full steam ahead, we give the act of looking back a bad rap. Taking time to look retrospectively is often unfairly associated with a loss of momentum or a pause in progress. After all, the rear view seems less important than the windshield when driving down the highway. However, our work has shown that leaders who cultivate a clear historic perspective move farther and more effectively into the future than those who don’t.
Winston Churchill believed that “the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” This opinion was validated by the research of University of Southern California Marshall professor Dr. Omar El Sawy. He found that CEOs who reviewed past events before planning future events had a longer future horizon than those who look to the future without a backward glance.
Here are four ways to extend the horizon for you and those you lead.
1. Reflect on How Far You Have Come to Discover How Far You Can Go
Leaders can inspire great change when they show others how far they have already come. When they help others reflect on the progress they’ve already made and the ground they’ve already covered, the challenges ahead seem less daunting. Such leaders highlight past accomplishments as a way of building collective confidence about the future.
Our client, a private university in Florida faced an uncertain future. It hired a new president to help chart a new course for the university, which faced soaring debt, was unclear about its direction and was inadequately prepared to meet the shifting demands of higher education. Within a few short years, this leader used his ability to look simultaneously to the past and to the future to reposition the institution for an unprecedented period of success.
Early in his tenure, he pushed a reluctant board, faculty and staff to take a risk, betting big to be one of the first entrants in the emerging market of online education. The move was complicated and required a bold reimagining of the nature of how students learn and how institutions should deliver education. Even early adopters of the president’s vision hesitated when confronting an aggressive implementation schedule that appeared to be unachievable and a budget that felt unaffordable.
He persevered, rallying everyone to suspend their doubts and fears. At every opportunity, he reminded them of the changes they had made in just his first year. At every opportunity, he showed the charts and told the stories of the gains they had already made together. At every opportunity, he talked about how they were achieving stretch goals previously deemed unachievable. At every opportunity, he helped them look back, thereby reinforcing that they could meet each new challenge, just as they had met the challenges of their recent past.
2. Honor the Past
Gaining commitment to a future direction is easier when the leader honors the past. It is a validation of prior vision, effort, perseverance and strategy that provides an opportunity to even consider a new pathway for success. Good leaders intuitively understand that honoring past effort is critical in galvanizing future effort. All too often, leaders enter struggling organizations as diagnosticians. They are myopically focused on what is wrong and what needs repair, and they become cavalier in the broad brush they use to remind stakeholders where they aren’t good enough. Good leaders understand that conversations can eventually address the deficiencies, but focusing first on examples of historic choices that led to success can remind people that they can win again.
Consider what can happen when this critical consideration is violated. A large human services organization hired a new chief operating officer (COO) from a competitor to help lead the changes that were necessary to bring the organization’s services and programs into compliance with new regulatory and accreditation standards. In the first few days in the job, the new COO held meetings with managers and department heads where he revealed his independent observations of what was wrong with their functional areas of responsibility. There was no discussion, only a list of failings presented with a thinly veiled dose of contempt for those leaders and the decisions that they made. He was exasperated by their choices but didn’t take the time to investigate the context of those decisions or to learn that they represented significant improvements over the decisions made by their predecessors. In short, he failed to honor the past; he indicted it and, in doing so, invalidated the effort and judgment of every existing leader in the organization. As a result, he could never galvanize the commitment he needed from them to be successful.
3. Link the Past and the Future
Many experts, such as consultant William Bridges, have documented that individuals, teams and organizations may hold back from fully embracing a future vision because they sense a loss. Perhaps they cannot see a role for themselves in future, or perhaps they fear what they value will no longer be valued.
Leaders who acknowledge the individual’s, team’s and organization’s past role and efforts, and the values that define them, open the door. Leaders who help individuals, teams and organizations see a role for themselves in that future, and who show how what they value will remain valued, inspire them to walk through that door.
There is, perhaps, no better example of this kind of leader than the late U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. Nearly one and a half years before the end of the Civil War, at a time when the country’s future was in peril, Lincoln cast a resonating vision and challenged all Americans to assume a role in, a responsibility for, ensuring, as he said in his Gettysburg Address, “that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
But before he spoke of the future ahead, he looked back, speaking of the past and highlighting the values on which America was built. He began the address with the statement, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In this way, Lincoln inspired commitment by linking the future to the past. He assigned all listeners a responsibility and helped them see that by accepting his challenge, they, too, would be honoring not only the fallen but also the past they so strongly valued.
4. Revisit Our Understanding of What a Legacy Means
In some organizations, employees become enamored with the past successes and the past leaders that made the company great. In some cases, they demonstrate an almost cult-like admiration for their founder. Such leaders remain loyal to the persona of the larger-than-life founder, even years after that founder retired, sold the company or even passed away.
Imagine a company that began with a unique product or platform. The company, and especially the founder, are recognized as leaders. The company has enjoyed great success over many years – until one day, it doesn’t. The stories about what that leader invented or built have been enculturated into company lore. In spite of changes in competition, technology, customer expectations, and customer and employee demographics, the current leaders are committed to protecting what they deem to be the leader’s legacy – his or her invention, design and creative work.
Pushing these leaders to dig deeper into the founder’s actual legacy often reveals dynamics and forces that are not directly tied to the celebrated leader’s charisma or image. By asking the right questions and guiding current leaders to take an unblemished look at the past, they can come to see the leader’s legacy in a new frame. That legacy is often his or her ability to create a product, service or message that met a customer need. The founder established a value proposition so clear and compelling that the marketplace had to open up and grow in response.
When current leaders look back, they often learn that their leaders’ legacies are grounded in being creative problem-solvers for the customers of the day. This understanding allows them to become unstuck – to honor their leaders, not with blind loyalty to a specific product or process, but by embracing their own creativity to solve the problems their customers need them to solve today.
Unlike the many people who tell us not to look back, we say: Visit often; just don’t take up residence. Bring forward with you whatever helps sustain what is important and supports the future you aspire to. By cultivating and contextualizing the lesson of the past with your present and anticipated challenges, you can discover the leader behaviors that will carry you forward.
- You can go farther than you first believed by recognizing the achievements of the past.
- You can gain commitment to the future by honoring the past.
- You can reduce fear of the future by linking the past to the future.
- You can find your future value proposition by exploring the past leaders’ real contributions, not merely their legends.
We look forward to your comments and examples of how looking back has helped you lead forward. Share them with us by tweeting @TrainingIndustr and @connectedlead.