Leadership Nostalgia: The Perils of Leading in the Past

Leadership Nostalgia

Are we leading organizations, ministries, groups or teams as though we are living in 1990 – or worse yet, 1950? Non-profits are most guilty, living in the founder’s dreams way beyond their life cycle.

Such visions were birthed in a former reality and the values, decisions, strategies and structures reflected that reality.

News Flash – it is 2013.

Looking Back

The past is cool, even if it was hard. Every day brought doubts, fears and unanswerable questions:

  • Will we have enough customers, recruit enough attendees, ever have a positive cash flow balance?
  • Will we be ready to handle what an uncharted future holds?
  • Will we ever really know what we we’re doing?

It was wild, and we were irrational. Especially we entrepreneurs! Just ask Jeffrey Bussgang

Leadership Nostalgia

Leadership Qualities

There is a kind of “leadership nostalgia” that robs us of present-day effectiveness and a truly transformational future. Just look at any arena of work. The problem is nostalgia is selective; we only remember the extremes.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, a perfect opening line for any new venture! As we recall the past, we either lived from one crisis to another or “everything just exploded and we could not even keep up with demand…what a rush!!!”

There were no normal days…or so we thought. But leading in the past is dangerous.

Look at these examples:

  • In America, one political group wants to restore American values while another wants to recreate the protest–driven activism of the 1960’s.
  • One graduate school clings to maintaining a purist “on-campus” experience for everyone; another hires a new President who will “take us back to the glory years” of our institution.
  • One church does a contemporary makeover – cooler music, hipper pastors, newer buildings, but still equates more butts in seats and dollars in the budget as success. Another appeals to “the early church” as THE model, unaware that all 1st century strategies do not meet 21st century challenges.

Leading the Future

We need to be leading OUT OF the past, not IN the past.

We need to be learning FROM the past, not longing FOR the past.

Here is what it takes to make that change:

Look Backward Briefly

Driving blindly into the future creates the same head-on collision as staring intently into the rear view mirror. Mine lessons from the past quickly because too much leadership nostalgia sucks the creative energy from the room. And take time to learn from mistakes. Scott Berkun has a great post on how to categorize and analyze your mistakes.

But don’t dwell on the past – mistakes or successes.

People care very little about what you did 40 years ago; time to get connected to the world TODAY and tell some new stories.

Get Very Clear about the Core…and Move On!

Look closely at values, culture, services, and products. Do we need it all? What some think is “our DNA” is really an extension of personal philosophy. If the organism is changing, so is the DNA.

Preserve only what really matters.

The Future is Not Yours Alone

Here is where most founders and long-term leaders get stuck. They have a “This is my baby” mentality – I gave it life!” Thinking they are “passing the baton” or “preparing the next generation to lead” they have changed only the ship’s crew, asking them to sail the same vessel.

Sure, it got a paint job and some high-tech navigation equipment, but it is still The SS Yesteryear.

In the cargo hold you’ll find the same vision, same strategies, and desires for younger leaders to utilize the same leadership style (theirs, of course). For church leaders, look at Protégé: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone and for business leaders you will gain much from Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline by Dan Tobin.

Do you have the courage to hand the rudder to a new crew and let them overhaul the entire vessel? Or even put this boat in dry dock and build a new ship? That’d be courageous leadership!

From Wall Street to Main Street to the streets surrounding Capitol Hill, it is time for new leadership models, approaches, strategies and structures.

Will you be part of the team to build them? Will you let others really own the process and the outcomes? I would love to hear your thoughts!

**********

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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Dr. Bill Donahue
Dr. Bill Donahue is President of LeaderSync Group, Inc

Bill is a professor at TIU and a Leadership Speaker and Consultant
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2 Responses

  1. Hi Bill,
    I fully agree with the stages you describe above – and how to navigate each of them as we move into the future. Here are some related thoughts for each of your stages.

    Looking Backwards
    Organizations should not get stuck in the past as you suggest. At the same time, they should analyze carefully what worked and what did not work and then ‘Keep the Best’ and ‘Get Rid of the Rest’.

    Being Clear about the Core
    This one gets trickier. The key here is to discover ‘what is important’ for each member of your team — as it is this team that will move you forward. Given a number of people on the team, it is likely there is a range of things that are important to one or more of them. The challenge then is to ‘find common ground’ for which each of the team members can feel honored to be part of the organization. This common ground needs to be rich enough to give something to each.

    Setting Clear Direction
    This stage could be added. It is the bridge from the vision (common ground) to establishing ownership from the team that must achieve the goals and objectives.

    Who the Future Belongs to
    Going through the three stages above should provide the foundation that leads to the team members each taking ownership in one or more of the tasks that must be done to be successful. Taking ownership includes the authority to get it done.

    Repeating these stages on a regular basis should keep the organization fresh, current, and on target.

    Thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Larry. The past is a platform not the arena. I like your insights!

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