Tag Archives: John Shuster

Life is lived forward, but thought of backwards.


This is an edited version of a thought often attributed to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  It presents a kind of interesting dichotomy that most of us cannot escape.  To me, it suggests that the only data we have to work with when learning, is based on our accumulated life history.  It is certainly true that we can learn from past experiences, successes, and failures.  In fact, I have previously written about ideas contained in John Shuster’s new book, The Power of Your Past.

While we need to learn from it, we should never permit ourselves to be bound by it.  Applying past history to develop approaches to future situations presupposes that most environmental forces in front of us are sufficiently like those situations from which our experiential data is drawn.   Is that always a correct assumption?  Increasingly (I think) it is not.  The world is moving faster, we have more information access than ever before (and digesting it correctly is increasingly difficult), and complexity seems to be growing.

I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly drawn to the idea that the economic and stock market situation we see today may be completely unlike anything we have seen before.  It seems stunning to me, that now when I see only a 150 point swing in the DOW, I think nothing of it. Ten years ago, many of us would have been looking for a ledge to jump off.   As the Government considers fiscal and monetary policies to deal with our economic situation I question if we have we ever before faced the complexities of interlocked global economies, plunging confidence in political leaders, slow growth prospects in our most developed and largest economies, political instability across the planet (information about) which we are bombarded with at light speed, etc?  How different must these be before they are considered unconventional problems?   That, of course is hard to say.  But, it seems evident that conventional wisdom cannot always solve unconventional problems?

Business executives face the same challenges.  We all make decisions based on past proven methods and ideas that have formed the basis of our prior successes.  I was at a conference once where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer was a speaker.  In the audience were hundreds of CEOs from all across our country.   Ballmer chastised us all for trying to plan our future courses but standing on the back of the caboose on an aging train, looking backward at the scenery as it receded from our view, while trying to imagine what was approaching the locomotive engine at the front.   (Pretty appropriate metaphor, don’t you think?  A pre-industrial age technology, in (more or less) 2-dimensional space as the platform we use to plan for an uncertain and dynamic multi-dimensional future.)

After arguing that such a decision-making strategy could not likely succeed, he challenged us to look to our children for guidance.   He said we should carefully observe our kids and consider, how they interact, learn, communicate, seek information, play, purchase things, and behave.  “Ask them”, he said, “what kind of company they would like to work for some day.” Ask them about their dreams, beliefs, and values.  Think about that . . . and then design your businesses around those things.       “Because”, he finished, “in only the blink of an eye, those kids will be your employees and your customers.”

Doesn’t that make sense?

Every young college student today in no matter what discipline, is aware of the amazing culture of companies like Zappos, Google, Apple, or Netflix.   Won’t they (in just a few short years) be imagining that all companies have similarities with them?   What will happen to your ability to attract tomorrows brightest most passionate talent if your business environment looks vastly different?

If you are unfamiliar with these new century workplaces, check out this clip on Zappos.

Yes, we need to learn from our past. But we have to become a lot better at “thinking forward”.

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The Power of Your Past


We at the Xavier Leadership Center are doing more in the space we call “personal leadership” which is less about leading organizations and more about leading yourself.   The idea is that when we are authentic as leaders, our colleagues see in us a sense of honesty and reliability that makes them feel more confident and willing to commit with us.  This requires a reasonable ability to see yourself objectively, and to be comfortable with what you see (a rich domain, I suppose, for psychologists).

Often times we encounter participants in our programs who say to us that it is “hard to be themselves at work” – especially when company values and culture run counter to their own sense of self and priorities.   In one of our programs we challenge people to reflect on what they want their personal leadership brand to be . . .  how we want other s to think and feel about ourselves as leaders.

When we go through this exercise, people often reveal to us that how they WANT to be seen is not always what they project.  So we generally challenge them to attempt a personal leadership experiment – changing something about their behavior at work to be more aligned with their own desired leadership brand.   Then we ask them to share with us what they did, what happened, and what was learned.

One person worked for a highly regarded, successful global company in the Midwest.  Some people would describe the company as conservative in nature.   She was a transplanted Californian who felt as though she was adapting her personal style to “fit in” at work.   Her experiment was to wear for one week, black nail polish (which was true to her own personal sense of style). In every meeting she attended that week, she made sure her hands were prominently on the table for all to see.   She reported that she was struck by how off-putting her fashion statement was to her colleagues. No one said anything, but their stares and body language spoke volumes.  For a while she was amused by how such a small thing was so disruptive.  Her amusement; later turned to frustration and then to resentment as she reflected on how she had been increasingly unhappy at work. For too long, she could not pinpoint why.

Ultimately she decided to leave that organization and has since found a new job at which she feels she is now contributing at level s of performance not previously accessible with her prior employer.

The message here is that there is a lot of value in knowing who we are, where we come from, and what we stand for.     When we are comfortable with these things, AND they are aligned with the culture of our employer organization, then we are able to perform at our best.

In this regard one of our XLC colleagues, John Schuster, has just published his new book called The Power of Your Past.   It is part a self-help book, I suppose, but it is also a leadership book.

In it, Schuster argues  that if we don’t know who we are, we tend to sell ourselves short, set goals that are too low, and allow social forces drive our agenda.   He argues that there are three sets of activities that can help us leverage our own sense of identity to make us better leaders.  These are:

Recall (answering the question what is in my memory that is worth paying attention to?)

Reclaim (amplifying the positive experiences in your life to help you reinforce what has worked well for you so you can build on it)

Re-cast (which has to do with re-framing those negative experiences in our past so that instead of limiting us, they are sources of learning that can make us stronger)

I don’t know about you, but I never took time in my early professional life to think about such things.  I didn’t start until I sold my business and starting teaching MBA students.  Only when I had to sit down and think about what was important for me to tell them, that I began reflecting on my own career and life.  I   sort of wish someone had encouraged me to start that process years earlier.

Check out John’s video.

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