Leaders, Let’s Not Lead Back to the Future

As leaders, how we say things impacts both results and future interactions. If our words are future focused, we lead to the future. We inspire a learning culture.

When our words take employees back to the past, we create a guarded blaming culture and lead nowhere.

Leaders, Let's Not Lead Back, to the Future

Phrases like:

“I would have thought we would have …”

 or “we should have …”

are blaming statements badly disguised as “we’re all in this together”.

Let’s Not Lead Back to the Future

Short Story. A recently promoted director of customer satisfaction, walked up to his former boss at the end of a training program that she helped design and said “I would have thought we would have approached this subject in another way.” He had provided no input during the development of the training program yet spoke with derision. Those around just stared at him. What was his goal?

Lesson. If we want to lead forward, let’s use forward focused words. “Going forward, I suggest xyz in phase II.” In this approach, the director would be contributing and leading forward, not back, to the future — like a know-it-all nit!

To do this, it helps to …

  1. Want to encourage others instead of correcting others.
  2. Consider that there are different views not just one view.
  3. Believe that we don’t ever have the perfect answer.
  4. Assess the emotional needs of others when trying to achieve results with them.

The newly promoted director, in the story above, is a Six Sigma Black Belt. His focus is to find root causes of customer satisfaction problems and improve them.

Root cause analysis is extremely valuable especially when it spawns future improvements. Whereas, black belting people about what they should have done leaves scars that impact future interactions and results.

Leading people back to the future with criticism demoralizes them with a blaming culture. Leading them forward — to the next times with lessons and insight — breeds commitment and outstanding future results.

Let us always remember that people-skills and emotional intelligence are just as important as vision, intellect, data, and drive in achieving the end results.

And the good news is, the words next time and going forward, are two no cost leadership phrases with dual power. They both inspire and deliver!

What do you think? Do words make a difference?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

©2011 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish this post, please email info@katenasser.com. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers consulting, training, DVDs, and keynotes on customer service, teamwork, and leading change. She turns interaction obstacles into business success in tough times of change. See this site for workshop outlines and customer results.

19 Responses to “Leaders, Let’s Not Lead Back to the Future”

  1. Absolutely words do make a difference and how well you use them is as you write a demonstration of your overall emotional intelligence. For example, words such as should, need place a judgement factor within the conversation. What is so sad is that this part of the communication process is not taught in high school, college or even graduate courses leaving people unprepared to be effective forward thinking leaders.
    Leanne Hoagland-Smith
    Author of Be the Red jacket http://bit.ly/1Q9mnV

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Dear Leanne,
      Sad but true. And interestingly enough, many who learned good communication in school succumb to the comfort of habit and don’t use it.

      Still, I am pleased to see that the focus on positive communication is still strong and making it into mainstream leadership discussions.

      Many thanks for your contribution.

  2. Certainly, words are important. Yet behind words are thoughts. When we notice our thoughts (in real time), we can change the words that we evoke for the better!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Yes yes yes Mary Jo! Our thoughts drive our words and behavior. Self-aware leaders who believe in inspiring vs. punishing do well.
      Many thanks for your “add” on this post.
      Have a super day.

  3. Hi Kate,
    I absolutely agree with you that what words we use to say are very important as that more than anything helps to shape and inform the perception of how others understand our message.

    I think the other point your story reveals is that leaders need to also remember that words of guidance should be given when it benefits the recipient the most, and not when it’s most convenient for you.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      HI Tanveer,
      Thanks for your “add” on this post. Leaders who think from the other side — the recipients of their guidance — create success beyond those who live in their own comfort zone.
      Best regards,

  4. Khalid says:

    Hello Kate,

    What a fantastic idea to be tackled! This will contradict the article but I wish if I have read this earlier 🙂

    One should know what to pick from the last to move forward! Regreting the past actions will just make the person live in the past and never move on to the future!

    This reminded me of my divorce! I thought when that happened that I won’t never move on coz I was sticking to the past blaming myself for better actions I would have taken to save my marriage! It’s only when I realized that life never stop and that I should look ahead and survive my future, I was breathing again!

    I still look at the past divorce in my existing marriage but with open eyes to the future not to fall in same traps again 🙂

    Thanks Kate for giving me the chance to express myself ? this article is right to the point I had been living for a while


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Khalid,
      I think your points are well made — not contradictory. The past is a wealth and deep reserve of lessons to improve the future. When we communicate the lessons in a forward way, we inspire others to keep learning. Your testimonial is living proof!
      Many thanks and warmest wishes,

  5. Jim Morgan says:

    Ah, friend Kate, while I again agree with everything you said, I am going to gently chide you for the way you said it. Which is, of course, the point to your post!

    My disagreement lies in this phrase: “black belting people about what they should have done leaves scars…” Because, you see, I am an actual black belt, as in the martial arts. Normally I do not discuss this fact in public, much less in a business forum, but I think the martial arts provide us useful lessons here. I have long said that the martial arts teach how *not* to fight.

    This means, first, trying to avoid a fight. We teach that a fight causes damage to the loser that usually is greater than their wrong. Often we find after the fight they were not “wrong” at all, but then it is too late to take back the damage. Even if the black belt comes away without a physical scratch, a mental itch will haunt them: “Why did my self-control fail? Why did I give into my ego rather than find another solution?”

    If the fight is unavoidable, we teach that the best way to lose a fight is to get angry. It causes mistakes and unnecessary force, which is both unethical and can have implications for us. The director let his irritation get the better of him, and in doing so made the mistake of causing unnecessary damage to his credibility (and thus persuasiveness) and to his relationship with a former boss he may well need in the future.

    Even if one does not care about the ethical implications of saying harshly critical things after the fact, there are selfish practical reasons for playing nice.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Jim,
      I like your reference to the martial arts. Great philosophy.

      On your gentle chide, I gently toss it back to you. In the story I noted, I actually witnessed the leader using his Six Sigma black belt approach incorrectly which is the point of my post.

      Sad isn’t it when leaders feel the need to start a fight when forward focused communication can do such a better job!

      All the best,

  6. Hi, Kate.
    Yes, words DO make a difference! A big one!

    I think actions speak even louder, so being the crazy person that I am, I would suggest going one step further too! Why not be future-focused, make constructive comments that will be helpful…and then offer to collaborate to make it happen?!

    If we can get people to focus on always adding value to each other – being helpful and supportive in both words and actions – we really change the culture and everyone’s confidence too!

    Keep up your great work, Kate! You’re making a difference!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Double wow Erin. Love the collaborate to make a difference. Fantastic. People who come around later and say “why didn’t you” contribute little.

      So pleased you added to this post.
      My gratitude,

  7. Joshua Symonette says:


    Words can be comforting as a soft blanket, sharp as a blade, moving like your favorite song or deceptive like a thief in the night. It just depends on how you use them.
    I once heard a leader say he spent several weeks working on one sentence. He wanted to make sure that his opening statement addressing a change that he knew the organization needed to take would include the right words. He is an extremely successful leader and one of my favorite communicators.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you for such a real life positive example of the value in a leader’s words. I’m grateful for your positive attitude and the examples you so often provide to this Smart SenseAbilities blog discussions.

      Warmest regard,

  8. Kate, nice post! Another side of this situation is perhaps what is going on with the newly promoted director or within the relationship between he and his former boss. I don’t want to interpret too much, but the situation could certainly be an opportunity to look at some underlying feelings. This might be right in line with what Mary Jo Asmus was noting in how thinking drives behavior, or reflect a kind of unhealthy “leaking” of something unresolved in the background.

    While changing the words and behavior are absolutely the right outcome, a way to help get there could be for the Director to ask himself a couple of questions (assuming he noticed or was given feedback about the harshness of his communication); for example, “I wonder why I said that?” or “How come I’m operating in this rude way with ___________?”

    Finding out and reflecting on what is in the mirror might help free up his capacity to communicate and collaborate more successfully in the future, and maybe even lead to an apology, which in this case sounds like it is owed.

    The self-questioning works best, of course, when people notice the harshness on their own and choose to ask themselves the question — already a sign of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. We can support one another by sharing our observations and encouraging the self-questions when situations like this one come up.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Dan,
      Self awareness, as you say, is sometimes the precursor or part of, emotional intelligence. I too believe there was something he was trying to prove — perhaps with his former boss. In any case he came across as a narrow minded know-it-all who wouldn’t consider any background info, parameters, or bigger picture issues.

      A big thank you for weighing in on this issue. Grateful for your interpretation.

  9. This is a very unique way of looking at how just changing phrases when talking to the people you lead will end up making a huge difference with how those who work with you and who you are in charge of. By making the right comments you can really see the right results instead of getting the same results again and again.

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