25 Jan 2019 18:50 IST

Rear-view mirror vs the windshield

The past guides our present, but over-reliance on the past can result in poor leadership impact

I just spent the last week on the highways, clocking about 2000 km, and that’s prompted a return to a theme I briefly raised in an earlier article — driving while looking in the rear-view mirror vs driving looking through the windshield. It is also an analogy for leading and living. If we drove a car looking only at the rear-view mirror, we would surely meet with an accident. If we completely ignored the rear-view mirror and only looked through the windshield, we could also end up being unaware of a vehicle coming up fast behind us. How do we apply these parallels to leadership?

Memory vs imagination

Most often, we lead and try to solve problems or harness opportunities by relying on memory. Our past guides our present and our future. While this is not bad in itself, an over-reliance on the past can set us up for poor leadership impact. One, because we live in an era of so much change, that today’s and tomorrow’s problems and opportunities have no precedent. Two, because being prisoner to our memories blinds us to creative use of our imagination.

Nelson Mandela could imagine a South Africa beyond apartheid, he could imagine people of different races working together and he eventually led the nation to that reality.

Salman Khan (not the one with the tendency to go shirtless) could imagine giving his knowledge to children all over the world and harnessing his ability to articulate academic concepts in a simple, non-threatening way. Today KhanAcademy.org reaches over 60 million registered users with a “mission ..to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” Electric cars, solar energy, space tourism, clean water for all, making profits and making a difference — none of these would be possible with memory, they all become possible with imagination.

Sometimes as leaders, we get so pre-occupied with the past, especially when it has been successful, that we are blinded to the fact that the past may not be relevant anymore. As Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle, put it: “Bureaucracy defends the status quo, long past the time the quo has lost its status.”

A rapidly changing business environment will often call for blank-piece-of-paper thinking. Again, this makes imagination more important than memory or knowledge.

Apple is facing strong headwinds in several markets. The year began with Apple CEO issuing a growth warning to shareholders, that the once-trillion-dollar-company’s first quarter revenues will be lower than estimated. With smarter rivals offering more value-for-money offerings, people are buying fewer Apples. Past glories mean nothing today. If Apple has to continue to grow, it needs to look ahead and see what the future environment looks like, what customer aspirations are today and how they should re-imagine Apple to meet them.

Post-mortem vs pre-mortem

Rear-view leadership is also one where we end up looking at problems after they have happened. We love doing a post-mortem. Analysis paralysis can be the bane of business. Corporate corpses are dissected for clues about what went wrong. But leadership should look behind less and look ahead more.

Gary Klein, in an HBR article, referred to the concept of a pre-mortem. A pre-mortem asks: “What could go wrong? What is likely to come up as a risk or opportunity?” A pre-mortem is aimed at gearing the organisation to look ahead and see potential problems and work to prevent them, or spot opportunities and equip the organisation to harness them. This is similar to the anticipation a driver shows, looking through the windshield, assessing the traffic, reviewing the road condition, spotting a speed-breaker and slowing down or speeding up accordingly.

This is also useful for us as a personal tool. When we have to consider a career shift, a change of job, taking on a different role, being handed a large project. Get the pre-mortem going. It calls for honesty and it forces us to ask the hard questions now that, if neglected, could become poor excuses later.

It is definitely useful to learn from the lessons of the past, particularly when strategy is to be changed or a new direction taken. This is similar to looking in the rear-view mirror before you change lanes. If we don’t do this, we could end up causing a crash.

Performance vs potential

The business world speaks the language of performance. Whether it is assessing a business, a manager, a team, a strategy or a product — the key metric is performance. What results were achieved? But performance is from the past and, as the mutual fund ads keep reminding us, “past performance is no indicator of future returns”. Leaders need to have a keen eye for potential, to see things hidden from the casual observer. This cuts both ways. The leader should be able to see that super-performing star of today, but whose future is clouded with risk. The leader should also be able to see the let’s-get-rid-of-it-candidate of today and spot the promise for the future. To do this, again, the leader should be able to shift her eyes from the rear-view mirror to the windshield.

A look at a former competitor of Apple, Nokia, gives us this lesson. I remember the time when mobile phones first came to India. The only phone worth having was a Nokia. Today it is on the fringes, as a brand. Perhaps leaders there spent too much time looking at performance and not assessing potential.

Jack Ma, China’s richest man and role model entrepreneur, applied for 30 jobs at his home town, Hangzhou. He was rejected at every one of them. Interviewers perhaps looked only at his past performance and failed to spot the exciting potential in him. Harvard rejected him 10 times!

Leaders need to do both — look in the rear-view mirror and look through the windshield. But doing more of the latter and less of the former will make for a better leadership drive.

A final lesson from the highway is that sometimes we are so focused on rushing to our destination we forget to enjoy the journey. Our eyes are so much looking to the future, we forget to relish the present. We’re so obsessed with overtaking, we forget to enjoy the view. It’s okay to let an over-anxious driver get ahead. We all finally meet up at the tolls — on the highways and in life.