Why Nonprofit Leaders Should Drive In Reverse

Good leaders are decisive.

They take action. They get things done.

Great leaders, however, make decisions and take actions strategically.

To better understand what it means to act strategically, I’d like to suggest examining one of the most undervalued qualities a leader must possess — the art of driving in reverse.

What I mean is, take a closer look at the path that brought your greatest successes and failures in the hopes of finding patterns that you can choose to either repeat or avoid in the future.

The value of driving in reverse

Let me give you one example. A friend of mine is a wonderful woman who spent decades working in the field of metallurgy. She has multiple post-graduate degrees (and a patent or two thrown in for good measure).

During the Cold War-era, she was successful in multiple fields of research while promoting diversity by becoming a leader in what was then considered a man’s world.

But among all of her many accomplishments, she takes the most pride in her contributions to the field of forensic metal failure.

When a massive structural failure occurred, my friend used to find herself being contacted by some big names in manufacturing and research, as well as government agencies and even the military.

So awhile back, my wife and I were enjoying dinner at her home one evening. During the meal, my friend recounted a story about how she and her team were brought to a United States Navy vessel after a catastrophic structural failure.

By working backward along the timeline, they were able to determine which factors led up to the failure event. She was then able to make specific recommendations regarding the future material requirements and engineering adjustments necessary to prevent similar incidents going forward.

Through this story, she demonstrated her exceptional ability to drive in reverse.

It might sound odd at first to suggest that nonprofit executives learn to flex their mental muscles to be able to look backwards, but there are limitless ways that true leaders can use these skills within a future-facing organization.

For example, many of us are familiar with the phrase, “Plan your work and work your plan.” This requires us not only to think ahead, but also to measure against goals and then make adjustments.

In similar fashion, I often see really strong leaders making a classic mistake. In their effort to work the plan, they judge too quickly, don’t consider enough facts, and wind up solving the wrong problems.

Driving in reverse: a valuable skill in any field

Another friend of mine is a top physician in his field. I was recently talking to him about patient care and he explained that in the best medical facilities, the diagnosis actually begins the moment the patient walks in the front door. His staff is paying attention and asking questions, but they are also assessing and noting anything of importance.

Before my friend walks into the treatment room, he has already looked at the chart. As he shakes the patient’s hand and introduces himself, he is feeling the health of their skin, the strength of their grip, the temperature of their hand, and other subtle health indicators.

This type of attention to detail is not something that happens in the moment — nor is it any more burdensome or time consuming than less attentive care.

On the contrary, because he has naturally and effortlessly built these kinds of observation skills into the culture of his staff, it is second nature to everyone. Rather than an imposition, such measures actually save time and money, and can even reduce errors.

Unfortunately, some people don’t want to be that observant. Often, this is based on concerns such as time limitations, scant available information, or more pressing priorities.

When are unwilling (or unable) to “back up” and evaluate core issues, the risk is high that we will miss new opportunities – and more critically, solve the wrong problems.

How to put reverse driving into action

As our backward-looking skills become more polished, we can also use them to increase our chances of future success.

Think about a new project you are hoping to start.

Now, think about what success for that project looks like. Go ahead. Stop and think about it for a minute and imagine the moment when it is done.

Now, from that position of future success, start planning backwards.

Yes, drive in reverse, making special note of the milestones and roadblocks along the way.

Before long, the project plan starts to shape up, and more importantly, the starting point becomes clear. Resource requirements become clearer, so that you can plan ahead to have the right people in place for each following phase.

I am not suggesting that we can avoid every problem – and I am also certainly not advocating for “analysis paralysis.” Success requires decisive action.

But when we have done our best work to minimize the risks, it gives us a much stronger possibility to make the right decisions, solve the right problems, and set the right course to reach our goals in the future.

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