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The Janus Effect

Envisioning the future and imagining its exciting possibilities is a key leadership role.

In The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner discuss several envisioning imperatives for leaders who are looking forward and contemplating what might be. One of those, “reflecting on the past,” might seem counterintuitive and can easily be overlooked. However, research shows that leaders who look backward while imagining future opportunities often find more meaningful outcomes.[i] This can benefit both organizations and individuals alike.

I recently met with a partner who is tasked with helping her small non-profit scale based on its tremendous results. Discussing what the ‘future organization’ should look like I asked, “How did you get here?” What followed was a powerful explanation of the organization’s purpose (its ‘why’, to borrow from Simon Sinek[ii]), a description of the principles guiding it and a clear articulation of its positive impact on the local community.

I pointed out that this backward look during the visioning process has a name: the Janus Effect, named after the Roman god with two faces: one that looked backward and one that looked forward.

Reflecting on the past can yield valuable information about the future. Often common and enduring threads emerge, such as clarity of purpose and values. Looking backward to answer “How did we get here?” can uncover critical paths along the journey, as well as provide direction for continuing or even altering that journey into the future.

Challenges that seemed overwhelming at the time often seem less painful in retrospect, and the value of lessons learned from those challenges becomes clearer.

The Janus Effect is equally effective for both organizations and individuals. Leaders who pause to reflect on the past might be reminded of the personal values that guided them, as well as how long it took them to achieve certain goals. This reflection can carve a path for the future, providing clarity of purpose and the ability to realistically anticipate what it might take to achieve those exciting future possibilities. It can also provide insights for activities and behaviors that should start, stop or continue.

Many feel that events of the past several months leave the future more uncertain than ever, and perhaps it is. However, leaders have a responsibility to envision a future that represents the achievement of opportunities and growth resulting from these challenging times.

Looking to the past to remind ourselves how we got here and where we are going is an invaluable tool in envisioning an exciting future.

[i] Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2012). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (5th ed.). The Leadership Challenge, A Wiley Brand.  

[ii] Sinek, S. (2009). Start With Why. The Penguin Group.

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