My wife and I have an odd, but important conversation every so often. It’s what leaders would probably call a “clarifying” conversation. But this isn’t a leadership convo…just a couple who has been married for a long, long time. Every so often we revisit this important family question …”If there is a fire and we only have a few moments to grab things, what should we scramble out of the house with?”
Inevitably we always land on the same answer … the scrapbooks. Situated in year by year order and occupying a key shelf in our closet are the memories and moments from our lives as a family. Trips, big days, and all kinds of significant snapshots of our lives together. Over the past few years we have fully converted to digitally so our latest memories live eternally in a cloud sever somewhere. But further back, they only exist on decorative pages of thick books that took hours to put together.
So we have agreed, if at all possible, don’t even consider leaving the burning embers of our house without those.
And I get it. You get it. Those are precious memories that as we turn each page remind us of special times that truly warm our heart.
It’s healthy. It’s joyful. It’s important. It’s comforting.
And for leaders…it’s dangerous.
In times of crisis and chaos, leaders can be tempted to get sucked into that exact same thing. What thing?
I know. You love it. You may even feel like you need it just get you through difficult times. Nostalgia is probably much more comforting than looking at today and trying to navigate tomorrow. I get it. However as we lead our organizations, especially through crisis, the pull and the lull of nostalgic daydreams about methods, models and moments past will hijack the exact decisions that are necessary to generate momentum toward tomorrow.
Nostalgic leadership, left unchecked, will handcuff your organization. It will confuse your team and leave them feeling like they are stewards of a glorious past versus being responsible for a better future.
It’s true that for many leaders forced to navigate so much uncertainty and abnormality in this moment, we may find themselves drifting toward thoughts of the supposed glory days of pre-covid. I realize it is not that long ago, yet to many of us it feels like another lifetime. Remember? Go ahead pull up some of those pics. You know you have them. You may have even saved them to your Favorites or created a special album…”Days I Loved Leading”.
Perhaps that amazing moment last Christmas with a packed auditorium, candles lit for as far as the eye could see. Or that one day conference your team held where hundreds arrived early and spent the day shoulder to shoulder growing, learning and being inspired. Or the worship night that still resonates, images of your church with hands and voices raised.
Those glory days were amazing. They really were. And moments like those will be experienced again. I promise. But only if you can take your eyes off of them and focus your gaze unflinchingly on now so that tomorrow is more promising.
Leadership based on an organization’s “scrapbook” of memories is not leadership at all. There is no doubt yesterday’s experiences can guide today’s decisions and propel us toward a better tomorrow. Of course it’s vital to carefully reflect on our past, celebrate the highs, be grateful for the experience and most importantly…learn from the lows. However, reflection and assessment differ drastically from nostalgia.
Assessment leads to change and course correction. We run our memories through an appropriate filter of the challenges of the current moment.
Nostalgia leads to an unhealthy yearning that can quickly hijack your future leadership decisions and direction. So don’t let nostalgia drive your leadership decisions today. It’s dangerous. And it begins with our language. Language creates culture so the language you find yourself using consistently is a reflection of the mindset you are probably currently in.
Dangerous nostalgia says:
“Let’s get back …”
“Remember when …”
“Those were the days …”
“Can we do that again…”
Healthy nostalgia says:
“We have had amazing moments. Let’s create some new ones”
“We have proof from the past that give us confidence moving into the future”
“We are grateful for past experiences to build upon. Now let’s get to building it”
Here’s are three healthy ways we can leverage yesterday’s experiences while being committed to tomorrow’s challenges:
1/ Remember…don’t waste energy trying to Recreate.
I get it. The reason I’m wrestling with this is because I am probably one of the most nostalgic people you will meet. My family inherited the same trait. I know this because we play the “Remember When“ game to an annoying level. Everything we do sparks a memory. Meals we have eaten. Places we have visited. Highs we have experienced. We crack open scrapbooks regularly and check the time hop app daily. Why? Because yesterday has a glow that today often lacks.
This is especially the case during a season like this. In a time of major upheaval (See: A global pandemic), the pull toward leading nostalgically is stronger than ever. But as we dig deeper into those nostalgic moments and endearing memories, what we should pull from is the deeper elements that actually made those times impactful and important.
>What led to their staying power?
>What emotions or movement do they generate in us that would serve as meaningful targets for our future endeavors?
>What need/hurt/hope did they reveal that we need to pay attention to?
>What strategies going forward can be birthed out of what we accomplished in the past?
Moments of nostalgia should only produce confidence, not confusion.
2/ Respond…don’t get stuck merely Reminiscing.
Remember, nostalgia always paints a prettier picture than the truth. Nostalgia has a tendency to clean up the experience. As we reflect on the past, note the challenges, the complications and even the failures that are all part of drawing an accurate picture. These are where we learn from the past. The other is where we just getting paralyzed by the past.
The day at the beach…The two day trip to Disney…
Amazing? Yes. Perfect? No.
Tomorrow will never live up to yesterday through the lens of nostalgia. So stop leading back toward nothing and begin leading forward towards something. Does yesterday seem way more attractive than tomorrow? Maybe. But the most courageous leaders will quickly adjust their eyes from the rearview mirror to the strategic road in front of them.
3/ Reflect…then appropriately
Be comfortable with the tension that moving forward is not just merely moving on. All of these moments matter. They are important. They mark the times. They create a bond. They are part of our shared story that we celebrate and then use as a community to provide strength for what is ahead.
Nostalgia says “Take me back!”.
Reflection says, “How do we move forward?”
If we get this right, our memories of the past become a catalyst towards accomplishing greater things within the new context we find ourselves in. Even if it involves the things we WISH we had done, those regrets that remain as leftovers of the past. Of course, we can’t avoid pondering the conversations, decisions, and initiatives that we may have led poorly through or failed to act upon altogether. Take note of them, review all of it, and then tuck them into the mental database of your leadership filter. Where we see failures or mistakes, it can serve to reestablish the calling and conviction to leadership that we began the entire journey with.
As your team works through this recalibration:
Be Inspired by yesterday
Stay Motivated toward tomorrow
Set Priorities for today
If you are currently leading your organization with a nostalgic strategy, be careful. Be comfortable living in the tension that moving forward is not casually moving on. It is taking our past appropriately with us into a different and more desirable future.
- Put everything on the table with your team. Allow collaboration to stretch across all team conversations and always lead any reflections or reminiscing toward future decisions.
- Use a collaborative exercise regularly for open evaluation that will put yesterday in perspective and tomorrow into clearer view. Examples would be: Four Helpfuls or JLUV. This is essential right now because there are opportunities that chaos brings you do not want to miss.
- Default thinking is difficult to flesh out of your team. Watch for signs of it as you flesh out vision / strategy for this next season.
- Celebration is not the same as nostalgia. Allow for it. Encourage it.
- If you sense nostalgia is being driven by mourning, give this a read.