Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

The Rearview Mirror

One of the oldest leadership analogies is that you can’t lead by looking in the rearview mirror.  Looking behind you prevents you from moving forward effectively.  The first time this was spoken to me, I thought to myself, “Sure, I am always focused on the windshield and what is coming at us”.  I have learned through the years, that the saying is much more complicated.

Being stuck in the past

What does looking in the rearview mirror really mean?  Maybe it can be summed up simply as, “Don’t look to the past…just move on”.  I don’t know how good that advice is, to be perfectly honest.  All of us can learn from the past.  Learning from past situations, adjusting what to do in the future based on past experiences allows us to grow as a leader…something we all want to do.  How else can we try something new if we don’t reflect on what we have done in the past?  Leadership is an iterative process and reflecting and learning from the past serves as a foundation for future change. So, I do not think it is useful to just say, “move on” unless you are obsessing over the past.

Looking Back While Driving Forward

A more subtle explanation for the usefulness of the analogy is what you don’t think about immediately after being told to lead through the windshield and not the rearview mirror.  Here’s how the past can stealthily change the possibilities of your future actions.  When you are in a leadership position you like to think that you are considering possible future actions based on objective contemplation.  “Look at the facts and make a decision” is what you are telling yourself.  If you are not careful, as you say these words to yourself, you may be driving forward while looking in the rearview mirror. The framework for the decisions you are considering can be based on false assumptions that are informed from the past. In the world of education leadership, you may make assumptions about structures that are in place without considering why they are in place.  For example, grade levels, or master schedules are examples of assumed structures that limit future possibilities. 


The question to ask yourself is this…What are the assumptions that I am inheriting from my past experiences that are limiting my future possibilities?

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
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