Strategic Thinking: Facing Backward To Go Forward

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

 Here’s an idea to leverage your organization’s history and heritage as a selling tool.  Reading time: 3:05.

         The 7-year-old boy eagerly climbed into the rowboat. “Dad, I want to row today. Can I? Can I? ” His dad acquiesced. “Well okay son. Get in the middle seat next to oars while I untie us from the dock.”

To get ahead in a rowboat you have to sit facing backwards.

      The boy sat down. He grabbed the oars. And the dad smiled at his son facing the wrong way in the middle rowing seat:

     “Jimmy, if you want to go forwards, you have to sit backwards. You have to sit with your back to the front of the boat.”

       Young Jimmy grimaced in confusion. His father tried to clarify: “To get ahead you have to face backwards.” Jimmy was even more confused.

       So are a lot of leaders very confused when they take over an organization and look forward  only.  They dismiss Winston Churchill’s observation that “The further backward we look, the further forward we can see.”

     And they miss an opportunity to fortify their vision for the future with hard core lessons from the past–historical lessons that can illuminate. Consider philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s notion that “life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”

       In fact, the most effective visionary leaders whom I have known straddle the fence of time –with one eye clearly anticipating the future and one eye clearly remembering the past. They live simultaneously in three time zones: –the future, the present and the past. These visionary leaders know that history puts the present into perspective, according to Sophocles who wrote 2,000 years ago “one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.” They look back to get ahead.

What is Past is Prologue

      Maybe that’s why the engraving over the US Supreme Court Building says it this way: “What is past is prologue.” A prologue is the introduction of a Greek play. So with history in place, leaders can really make the present come alive in a more vigorous way so that we are not “condemned” to repeat the past as philosopher George Santayana cautioned.

      After all, historians (a.k.a. leaders) “make meaning” out of facts, notes James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer-prize winner and author of the book Leadership.  And history is powerful ammunition, according to Winston Churchill who called a good knowledge of history much like a “quiver full of arrows in a debate.”  Indeed, history expands our focus beyond the “tyranny” of our everyday environment, according to Lord Acton.

      Break away from that tyranny of the everyday. The next time you head off for that obligatory strategic planning retreat with your staff, grab your oars. And take your seat ——heading into the future. Backwards.

 Today’s ImproveMINT

Study and leverage your organization’s history to keep your leadership thinking in mint condition.

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