Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

The Leadership Trap: Trying to Go Back

Everybody’s clamoring for  these days in politics, business, education. But who’s asking where those leaders should take us? Leadership without a map is a trap.

Most people think we have a leadership problem these days. We don’t. Plenty of people have been leading us in our politics, business, education, and spiritual lives. In fact, with the explosion of global rapid-reach information technology, there’s more leadership than ever. Just about any magic-wand-wielder can get airtime using social media, YouTube and a blog to gather thousands of followers.

But to where?

If there are plenty of leaders, why are so many things falling apart? Simple: We are facing a crisis, not of leadership, but of destination.

Mostly because many leaders want to take us back. 

You’ve heard tell of the good old days? Maybe you’ve tried to go back there yourself once or twice? Well, going back to the good old days  is an all-too-common destination for leadership. Doubly so during tough times. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the days when things were simpler, cleaner, brighter?

Except that such times never existed. We all know that. And if you don’t have a map of the future, the only roads you know of are the ones that lead back. So the allure of going back is strong. It even becomes part of our language, as in going back to basics. 

Going back is not leadership.

  • When you hear someone in your company say: When the market comes back…they aren’t leading their clients or themselves towards success.
  • When you hear clients say, We’ll wait until prices bounce back…. they aren’t leading themselves out of their financial troubles.
  • When you hear committees, representatives, trade leaders mumble, If we maintain the old policies, we will eventually get back to prosperity, you know they are trying hardest to fool themselves.

Whenever you hear this kind of leadership, consider: Someone is trying to turn their back on the future.

Winston Churchill, a strong leader in difficult times, said: If you’re going through Hell, keep going. He didn’t say, go halfway, then turn back. In fact, he didn’t even try to look back, only forward, in one of his lesser known quotes: If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future. 

So the leadership question boils down to one simple question. Where are you going? 

It’s also what defines effective leadership from failures. Leaders who say, Forget how we’ve always done it! We’re must try some new things to be relevant in the future, are more likely to report profits and growth while others crumble. Apple is doing it during the greatest recession in nearly a century. So are many others. But not all. Look at every crumbling former leader – Blackberry, for example – and you’ll see a leadership problem. In their case, two.

Look at the leadership direction around you and you’ll see why some industries, governments, even people, are in decline. You’ll see they’re trying to turn back the clock – on their competitors, in their policies, in their lives. Pining for the past rather than producing the future. Worse, you might notice some of them actively implementing past ideas, policies and practices that couldn’t possibly work today or tomorrow – because they frequently didn’t work back then.

It’s why going back to basics can never work. 

And leaders who try to take us back there can’t succeed, either.


  • Great post and a reminder to stay focused on what’s ahead of us, instead of what is behind us. It reminds me on one of my favorite quotes – “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Eric Hoffer)

    Here’s to continuing to learn, reach and expand upon our possibilities instead of shrinking into a “safe place” and waiting for the “good ol’ days” to return. Instead, let’s create the “good new days.”

  • Stephfessel

    Matthew, I love it when I get this request:  “Stephanie, we need you to deliver a training program that gets us back to the basics.”  My question is always the same:  “The basics of what?  1 year ago, 5 years ago, 15, 20 years ago?  The basics have changed in the last 365 days!  So, what basics are YOU referring to?”  Blank stare. 

  • Stephanie:
    EXACTLY!!! I understand what you’re saying, because we get the same requests, to which I ask:
    By the way, how did those ‘basics’ work out for you ‘back then’? Were your agents more productive? Was per-person-productivity higher? Did everyone produce, and none sit around? Were all leads converted? And so on… until people realize that their production level wasn’t necessarily better “back then” or that the formula for *those times, those customers, those marketing techniques, those market conditions* don’t exist today.
    At one time, the “basics” of chemistry, as established by Aristotle, were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Would anybody today suggest we erase the Periodic Table of 118 elements and go “back” to those four “basic” ones?
    Thanks for your comments. Always fun!
    – MF