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Change Culture Growth Leadership

If you look back, you’ll soon be going that way

You can’t drive a car successfully and safely by continuously looking in the rearview mirror.

“If you look back, you’ll soon be going that way.”

That was the text I received on my modern crafted, but traditional fortune cookie during our dinner in a Balinese restaurant.

I hadn’t seen a fortune cookie since our days in the US and didn’t realize they were still a thing. We love Asian food, but the fortune cookie has escaped us for many years. 

It might be us or the restaurants we’re visiting. 

The text on the cooking triggered enough conversation and contemplation that you’re now reading about it.

Traditions, like fortune cookies and memories of the past, are good.

Let me start by making that point. 

There are ample examples of people and companies that lost their ways by giving up qualities of the past that made them great in the first place.

It’s good to remain connected and loyal to your DNA. 

I know a few great leaders who took over business, and the first thing they did was understand the company’s history and what had built their DNA.

Reasoning?

Companies, teams, and human beings are the products of systems built over many years. 

Traditions, rituals, values, processes, and other invisible mechanisms determine how companies, teams, and people operate.

Most of it is hard to change and will never change if you don’t understand the system at its core.

That’s why many change efforts fail.

Ambitious executives taking over, trying to impose their vision and ideas, initiating change without understanding what made the company successful once and why it started to fail at some point.

It still pays off to look back, listen, and understand.

No matter how much you detest the company’s past, the reasons the company may not be doing well, and the clarity you have, what’s needed to turn this around?

So yes, I’m advocating for respect for the past. And you may be wondering where I’m going, given the title of this insight.

You may have expected that I would trash those who look too much at the past.

Now you know I don’t.

The past matters a lot.

And…

We also need to move forward. We can’t keep looking at the past.

There’s a delicate balance between honoring your past and focusing on the future. Few leaders know how to strike that balance well.

They either dwell on the past or are only focused on the future. 

Neither work in solitude.

That’s the critical point and what I believe those wise Chinese philosophers were trying to say with this fortune cookie.

It’s essential to know and understand the past, but we need to let go at some point.

Whatever happened in the past may have caused the reasons why you are where you are right now and may be able to tell you about your steps for the future.

You can’t drive a car successfully and safely by continuously looking in the rearview mirror.

That’s my fortune cookie wisdom.

Just like driving a car, once you have observed what’s happening in the background, you turn your eyes forward again. 

Before switching to the future, you need to pay attention to your rearview mirror again for a little while.

It’s a process of understanding what you see, understanding it, letting go of it, and moving forward.

And no matter how often you feel you need to look back, your goal is to move to your destination.

Experienced drivers with high situational awareness don’t look in the rearview mirror often and very long.

They see the patterns. They know and can feel their context. And they know when they need to look before moving forward again.

That’s the only way to go.

Your turn: what do you need to understand and let go of before you can move on?

Erikjan

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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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