Reflect Back To Lead Forward

by  Mike Henry  |  Resources

Do you remember the opening line from Paul Simon’s Kodachrome (most of you are probably too young, so a link is here). “When I look back at all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Each of us has a season in life we’d rather forget. For many that may be high school. For others, it may be a word spoken out of place that came back to haunt. Much of our lives get past us before we know it. How we reflect on those experiences influences the quality of our lives, our leadership and our ability to make a difference. Let me explain.

No One’s Perfect

We all know humans aren’t perfect. But generally, we are the only human we fully excuse. We judge everyone by their actions but ourselves. We know our intentions, and because they are our intentions, they must be good. That thought first caught my mind while reading The Noticer by Andy Andrews, but I have seen it in several places since.

How you reflect on your life experiences matters. If you are a leader, it matters more. The best leaders lead from the depth of their experiences. True compassion which only grows through experience builds bonds with others. Leaders take responsibility for the future, but they gain insight to the future by owning, reflecting on and growing from the past.

Look Back to See Forward

In Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, the authors cite a research project performed by a USC professor to provide insight into the value of using reflection about the past. Two groups of CEO’s were asked to look into “their personal futures – ‘to think of things that might (or will) happen to you in the future.'” Then they were also asked to record events from their past. “In each case they were asked to list 10 events and date each event.” One group of CEO’s was asked to do the past events first then the future events. The other group was asked to do the future events before the past events. Each group looked back about the same amount of time, approximately 20 years. But the group of CEO’s that viewed their past first “had a significantly longer future time horizons than the CEOs who listed future events first.”*

Reflecting on your past allows you to objectively, constructively process it. The wisdom you develop is leverage to impact your relationships and your leadership in the present. You learn new insights and perspectives as you objectively reflect on past events. Take time to reflect on the past to gain leverage and insight into people, causes, effects, and results taking place in the present. Use your life as a classroom. If you’re new at reflecting, enlist an older mentor, someone whose leadership you appreciate. Chances are they’re good at reflecting and their experience will prove helpful.

Make It Stick

Even though Kodachrome is going away, you can photograph your past and archive the memories.  What recent experiences have dropped off your radar because you’re too busy? Can you take a minute today and reflect on a recent problem or experience? Some times our most painful experiences provide the best lessons because we remember them longer and reflect on them more. Pick an experience from your past today and think for a few minutes. Then share your learning with someone else. In a few short minutes you will make a difference. You may even help someone avoid learning the same lesson the hard way.


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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Ron Hudson  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Mike, this is an insightful post because it reveals how one can often look back at the “toughest times” in his life and realize that, if it were not for those times, he would not love as deeply, forgive as quickly, or lead as effectively.

Thanks for writing this post!


Mike Henry  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Ron, thanks for commenting. Forgiving quickly is a key as well. Thanks for the reminder. Follow up posts will be coming and one is about how we can err in how we process our experiences. Forgiveness is the key to objective reflection.

Jessica Bates  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Exactly how I felt, Ron. Rather than compete with your eloquent response, I will simply agree with it. Well said!

Thank you for this reminder, Mike. Though sometimes painful, reflection is a necessary part of growth!


tim  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Hi Mike:
I’ve been following your tweets on Twitter for awhile now and this article caught my attention. Probably because I’ve been thinking about my work with student leaders. What I’ve discovered is that a student doesn’t become a student leader simply because of one’s election or selection. Rather, a student who invests in the right kind of reflection is the one who starts to do the things that student leader’s do. That’s because they took the time to think the way leaders think. The central part of that thinking is the necessary step of reflection.

Thanks for providing a great article here and I look forward to continuing to learn from you in the days ahead.

tim milburn

Mike Henry  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. You’re right that thinking is the key. Thomas J. Watson Sr., long time head of IBM, was famous for his one-word IBM philosophy: THINK. Students (or anyone) willing to do that has the first key to leadership.

Nicole De Falco  |  31 Jul 2009  |  Reply

Too often, we avoid looking back because we dread that aweful internal cringe when remembering mistakes. That guilt and/or shame is self-induced. Taking the perspective of this post, we should look back objectively to ensure we’ve learned something from the experience. If we’ve gained insight from our mistakes, then there is no need for guilt, shame, or regret.


Mike Henry  |  02 Aug 2009  |  Reply

Thanks Nicole. “No need for guilt, shame, or regret” is a good thing. I appreciate your comments.
.-= Mike Henry´s last blog ..Reflect Back To Lead Forward =-.

Naomi Caietti, PMP  |  01 Aug 2009  |  Reply

Hi Mike:
Nice website; this is a leadership tool I often use. Leadership is built one day at a time so I recognize that reflection is key to honing my authentic leadership style.
Reflection is an important part of your regime ~ your personal continous growth and development plan. Reflection can also take many forms so consider reflecting by going to a retreat and spend time thinking, finding a nice quiet spot on a couch with a book, writing down your reflections of past experiences both positive and negative, listen to leadership books on tape and reflecting with a mentor ~ as you have suggested.
Thank you for your “reflections” of leadership ; it is a journey worth taking to become a better leader.

All the best,


Mike Henry  |  02 Aug 2009  |  Reply

Naomi, Thanks for the comment. You’re correct that reflection is a self-development effort. Most of “leadership development” is self development. Sometimes the best we can do to help someone else is to offer to be a mentor.
.-= Mike Henry´s last blog ..Reflect Back To Lead Forward =-.

Mark  |  03 Aug 2009  |  Reply

Mike, great post on the value of reflections and reflective thinking. Another nuance on using the “Past Success/Future Success” activity is to ask people to consider the Past list as a self-assessment, a measure of who they are now, and the Future list as a measure of their Potential. Which was longer?

By the way, I love “The Noticer”. Beautiful, rich parable that I will read again.
.-= Mark´s last blog ..Lessons from Aunt Beck – Lesson #2: Keeping Score =-.

Mike Henry  |  03 Aug 2009  |  Reply

Mark, thanks for the comment. The self-assessment vs. potential evaluation is a good one. Thanks for the tip.

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