When You Have To Go Back To Go Forward


I held my breath as the rocks beneath my feet started to slide.

One small rock, the size of my fist, tumbled down the mountain, bouncing hundreds of feet before it came to a stop.

I sat down on a boulder, sighed, and said aloud what I’d been thinking for last twenty minutes: I was lost.


Recently I summited my twenty-fourth 14,000-foot mountain: Huron Peak. After a challenging trail with snow and ice, it was a beautiful summit and a gorgeous day. Clouds filled the valleys on one side, diffracting the light and making for fantastic photographs.

When it was time to descend, I waited ten minutes after everyone else left the summit. I enjoyed a few moments of picturesque solitude and started down.

Within a few minutes though, I recognized that the landmarks were different. The trail I’d come up was packed with snow. This trail was indistinct and disappeared into sun-warmed rocks – not a flake of snow to be seen.

“No problem” I thought, “I’ll just traverse around the mountain and pick up the trail as I head down (I really didn’t want to go back up – I was tired.) But as I continued down and around – I ran into a deep crevasse with steep rock faces. There was no way back to the trail I’d come up.

As I looked around, I realized whatever ‘trail’ I had been following had completely disappeared. I took another tentative step and that’s when the loose rock started to slide. If I kept going, I risked broken bones, or worse.



What do you do when you know you can’t keep going the direction you’ve been going?

Maybe the project didn’t work out the way you thought it would. Perhaps you worked from poor information. Maybe you screwed up and don’t like how you’ve behaving. Or maybe the environment has changed and your current path no longer serves you and your team.

What do you do now?

As I sat on that boulder, taking stock of the situation, I came to a tough conclusion: the only chance I had to find the trail and get home under my own power was to climb back up to the top of the mountain.

I turned around and looked up. There was no trail – just 750 feet of loose, jagged, menacing rock.

It was the only way. To go forward, I would have to go back.


Going back is unpleasant. Whether you made a mistake, worked from bad information, made a poor choice, or face a changed environment, it takes strength and character to go back. Here are seven ways to help you go back to go forward:

1) No BS Analysis

Commit to obtaining and facing the truth. The hard truth, the unpleasant truth, but the truth. Don’t let diaper genie feedback interfere with your ability to get the information you need to make good decisions.

The reason I’d got lost in the first place was because I didn’t confront the facts as they were – I made up my own to match my preference. Have the courage to deal with reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.

Have the courage to deal with reality as it is, not as you wish it to be. (Click to Tweet)

2) Stop

This might be the most difficult step. For most leaders, this goes contrary to everything you know about success. Even so, when you’re lost, the best thing you can do is stop moving. Stop getting more lost.

If you’re digging yourself a hole – stop digging. If you walk into a room where a faucet is running and flooding everything – turn off the faucet.

In business, this can mean practicing creative destruction: intentionally stop working on a project that no longer benefits the team, the customer, or your bottom line. Too many leaders keep working on fruitless tasks because of inertia – it’s actually easier to keep doing what you’re doing, even when it clearly doesn’t work.

In other situations, to stop might mean you admit you’ve screwed up or acted poorly. In yet other situations, it might not be a project or a mistake, but actions and behaviors that were good at one time, but aren’t serving you now. Consider a ‘stop doing’ list.


3) List Your Assets

As I sat on the boulder, I inventoried my remaining water, food, mobile phone battery strength, first aid kit, map, clothing, and sunscreen. If I were to get stuck or injured, I needed to know exactly what resources I had to work with.

4) Determine Where You Want to Be

Be clear about your destination. Not where you’ll end up if you continue on this road, but where you honestly want to get. What business results? What quality of life? What culture and team atmosphere do you want to create?

5) Determine Where You Are

Admitting where you are now takes courage. Hopefully you’ve already figured this out when you committed to No BS Analysis. If not, get feedback, get the data, and figure out where you are now.

I had to pull out an old fashioned map and work with a compass until I knew exactly where I was compared to where I wanted to be.

6) Take the Next Step in the Right Direction

These steps can be challenging. It may mean you have to admit to your team or organization that what you were doing wasn’t working. Many leaders hate to do this – but here’s the thing: your people already knew it wasn’t working.

You look smart, confident, and strong when you own up to it and get everyone moving in a better direction.

7) Evaluate

As you get moving again, pay careful attention to ensure you’re on the path you intend to travel. Are your KPIs moving in the right direction? What are your key success metrics? Be sure you’re heading in the right direction before you accelerate again.

Once you’ve got distance from the wrong direction, reflect on what that situation had to teach you. Was there a good reason you went down the wrong trail? Or was there a way you can avoid that in the future? What would you do differently next time (if anything – some wrong turns are to be expected if you’re moving!)

Obviously, I made it back safely. I’ve never summited the same peak twice on the same day…but I was never as glad to see a trail as when I found the right one.

Remember: sometimes you have to back to go forward. There’s no shame in acknowledging it’s not working. Commit to face real facts, stop doing what doesn’t work, and find the new way forward.

Be the leader you want your boss to be,

David Dye

David Dye
David Dye, President of Let’s Grow Leaders, works with leaders to achieve transformational results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. As a former executive and elected official and nonprofit executive he inspires audiences with practical leadership inspiration you can use right away. The award-winning author of The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, David is a sought-after leadership speaker, and believes everyone can master the essentials of influence.