Recently, I read an extremely well-written, thought provoking post on LinkedIn written by Valerie Rivera, who describes herself as a “Culture Catalyst/Design Thinker/Coach.” I not only connected with Valerie on LinkedIn, but also obtained permission to use her posting as the introduction to this month’s column. Her posting said:

My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, I thought it might explode.

I’d finally attempted to go running in Colorado, but my lungs were revolting against me. After years of living at sea level, the altitude was really taking its toll.

In a show of solidarity (or maybe pity?), my right shoe untied itself three times. The left one was not so generous. Still, I welcomed the excuse to stop and catch my breath, grateful that I’d skipped the double knots – but dejected by my apparent lack of stamina. I turned around to head back just as the sun began to set, and the view shocked me. I’d been running uphill THE ENTIRE TIME!

I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I hadn’t even noticed the true magnitude of my quest. Then it hit me – this was just like starting a business. Disappointment, rejection, elation – sometimes all in the same day! Which leads me to wonder: when things are difficult, do we turn around often enough to celebrate how far we’ve come?

It was smooth sailing all the way back down the hill – didn’t even have to stop once. Now if only that were the case with #TakeBackWork…but until then, I’ll just keep chugging along!

That posting reminded me of the value of looking back.

Those of you who are regular readers of Contemplation Corner are probably thinking, “What? Looking back? You are always emphasizing having a vision, keeping your eye on the vision, and making sure that every decision made in the organization is based upon whether it will help us accomplish the vision.”

Let me assure you I have not abandoned my emphasis on having a vision. I am still a firm believer in vision driven leadership, but let’s not discount the value of periodically stopping and looking back.

There are a number of great quotes about not looking back. Among them are the following:
• “Looking back isn’t going to help you. Moving forward is the thing you have to do.” ~~ McKayla Maroney

• “Don’t look back, you are not going that way.” ~~ anonymous

• “For me, looking back is akin to being on a tightrope and looking down. It doesn’t help you in the present moment to deal with what you have to deal with in order to move forward.” ~~ The Edge

• “The longer we keep looking back in the rearview mirror, it takes away from everything that’s moving forward.” ~~ Dan Quinn

While those quotes would have one believe that looking back is never the correct thing to do, that is not true. While our primary focus should be on where we are going, there is much to learn from looking back.

First of all, we need to look back to so we can learn from our mistakes. The philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana also recognized the importance of looking at our past. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Washington, who was obviously a “forward thinker” pointed out an exception to the “no looking back” rule when he said, “We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.”

Washington understood the value of looking back to “derive useful lesson from past errors.”

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles member Federico (Fred) Rangel says that while working as a member of my administrative team he came in and told me, “You are probably going to fire me, but you always say, ‘if you make it rain, let me know so I can get my umbrella.’” He then told me of an incident in which he was involved.

Fred says that after we dealt with the situation and the potential political fallout that might arise from what happened, I said to him, “Okay, you paid your tuition. What did you learn?”

While I do not recall the situation, I do believe there is value in turning mistakes into learning experiences. As Washington pointed out we need to profit from our “dear bought experience.”

I like to tell people that I have never failed at anything, but I have had a lot of never-to-be-repeated learning experiences.

A second reason to look back is that not only can we learn from our mistakes, but we can also learn from our successes.

Knowing what proved successful in the past can help us build on those successes which will enable us to accelerate our journey to future successes. Seeing ourselves successful in past endeavors can give us the confidence that we can be successful in the future.

The third reason to look back is to help us clarify the big picture. In one organization in which I served as the Chief Executive, a key member of my leadership team said to me, “we are not getting anywhere on our journey.”  I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “We have been working on this for four years now and we are nowhere near where we want to be.” 

I asked her, “Do you know why they have mile markers on the highway?” Startled, she said, “I guess to tell you where you are.” 

I smiled and said, “No, it is to tell you how far you have come. When you go on a trip and the kids start saying, ‘are we there yet?’ you can say, ‘no, but we started at mile marker 85 and we are getting off this highway at mile marker 252, and we are already at mile marker 236.’  The mile markers tell you how far you have come.”   

Then, I asked her, “What did this organization look like when we started this journey?” After she described the way the organization had looked when we started to make the major changes, I asked her, “What are the mile markers you can identify that tell us how far we have come?”  She identified the major changes that had transpired.       

I reminded her that on a long journey, it is not only important to keep your focus on the goal, but to keep yourself from being overwhelmed by how far you still have to go, it is also important to remind yourself of how far you have come.

Looking back, as illustrated by Rivera’s story, we gain a different perspective than just looking forward.  Understanding where you have been creates a different perspective on where you are.

Looking back also helps us identify trends in our industry and enables us to better prepare for the future. By examining not only the present but also the past, we are in a better position to identify trends in our industry which will help us better anticipate the future. Organizational managers manage the present organization.  Organization leaderships are charting a course for the future. By plotting what has happened in the past and what is happening in the present, they can more accurately predict what is going to happen in the future.

We must never forget where we are going (our vision), but we need to study to past to help us better understand how to get where we want to be.

Any questions or comments regarding this column or suggestions regarding topics for future columns should be addressed to

The Value of Looking Back
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